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


Let me get this straight…
13 June 2008, 2:32 pm
Filed under: Economics of Eating, food politics, local v. industrial, Production

… Steven Dubner, co-author of the acclaimed book Freakonomics has a bad first experience making homemade orange sherbet. From this experience he concludes that locavorism is a waste of time. The article is so badly conceived (“A Few Billion Locavores”? Really?) that I have to suspect that something like the John Dvorak Effect is at play. Still, I found some of the comments to be worthwhile.



Mea Culpa: Cowardice and Politics

Readers of this website, if indeed any remain, deserve an explanation, if not an apology, for the long, unannounced, and unjustified hiatus this website has taken. I would like to spend a few words discussing why I stopped writing and where I find myself beginning again. I would like to think that my absence has been due to overwork and to a perhaps unhealthy obsession with the U.S. Presidential races. It is true that I have been both busier and more distracted this term than ever, but the real reason is, I daresay, rather more interesting than that.

I.

I noticed back in November that my writings here, and those thoughts that I found myself wanting to put down, had taken an unexpected turn from food law and policy particularly toward, for instance, community planning and urban design; poverty and subsistence living; feminism and the politics of domestic labor, and I didn’t like where this writing was taking me. I found myself saying in person and thinking about writing here some Unserious Ideas of the sort that No Reasonable Person Thinks. Thinking and writing against the conventional wisdom. I started to think thoughts that I worried were radical. I was worried that I could start sounding like one, or indeed that I could become one, and that following food politics as I had could easily turn my writing on food into a continuous jeremiad against contemporary modes of being and behaving rather than a discussion of law and policy.

In December I experienced, without really knowing it, a certain deeply-ingrained cowardice of thought, and it was that cowardice which has made me stop writing.

Part of it is law school, to be sure. One of my professors joked a few months ago that our law school (which, it must be said, is a rather well-regarded school) is really good at churning out insurance lawyers. Despite its rhetoric about “Making a Difference” we are all far more likely to succeed in the current system than to change that system, and therefore, to the extent that the system is not good, to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Over lox and bagels one Sunday my roommate said much the same thing in a different context, about law school making cowards of us all. Law school teaches us to reflexively support the system. Show me a rule, a law, an institution, and law school has conditioned me to believe that rule, law, or institution does more good than harm. How could it not? The system works. If a law were doing more harm than good, it would be repealed. Law school teaches us to keep shifting in scope — where a policy clearly harms, for instance, a neighborhood, we shift to arguing that an alternative would harm the state. Law school makes us slippery, but it makes us a particular kind of slippery, a kind which supports the existing order in return for prestige and responsibility and a great deal of money.

All of these observations have been observed more cleverly and more convincingly elsewhere. What is bothersome to me is the realization that they could apply to me, and that they could apply unconsciously, insidiously. The choice is rarely so stark as being called into the darkened office of the powerful man and being offered a briefcase of money: that scenario is unsubtle and stupid. The choice is more often whether we will say and do the things that we think are true or right without considering whether they fit neatly into the conventional wisdom and the received order. This is the sort of lesson that we often think applies to teenagers and smoking, for instance, but I see no reason why it fails to apply to adults and professionals.

For me, I was uncomfortable presenting myself as a lawyer, even pseudonymously, who believes that our food system is dysfunctional from top to bottom. Lawyers who want to be taken seriously don’t advocate that people should cook their own meals, in their own kitchens, from food grown in their own gardens and towns and communities. Lawyers who want to be taken seriously don’t challenge the reality that all adults have to work outside the home. We don’t challenge the reality that our economy is built on our inability to say, “I have enough. I don’t need a new car, a new house, a new video game system. I don’t need a television at all.”

Lawyers don’t challenge these realities because there are no clients who represent the interests of having enough. There are no clients in favor of putting away or throwing away the television set and spending that time putting in a garden. The local economy, the family-owned restaurant, the farm, the local manufacture of goods for local consumption — these things do not support the lawyer with his three hundred dollars an hour and his very expensive suit.

II.

I am reading a friend’s copy of Wendell Berry’s excellent collection of essays, Sex, Economy, Freedom, Community and last weekend I came across, in the final and eponymous essay, the following paragraph:

The “conservatives” promote the family as a sort of public icon, but they will not promote the economic integrity of the household or the community, which are the mainstays of family life. Under the sponsorship of “conservative” presidencies, the economy of the modern household, which one required the father to work away from home — a development that was bad enough — now requires the mother to work away from home as well. And this development has the wholehearted endorsement of “liberals,” who see the mother thus forced to spend her days away from her home and children as “liberated” — though nobody has yet seen the fathers thus forced away as “liberated.” Some feminists are thus in the curious position of opposing the mistreatment of women and yet advocating their participation in an economy in which everything is mistreated.

(To be sure, Mr. Berry is making the mistake of assuming that feminists who argue that woman should have the right to work outside the home are also arguing that woman should in fact work outside the home, however I can think of a significant number of feminists make exactly these two arguments, side by side. Mr. Berry’s greater point seems to be that participation in the larger economy opens oneself up to mistreatment, whether one is a man or a woman.)

It seemed to me that Mr. Berry was quite concisely making a point that I had clumsily hoped to make in Feminism v. Locavorism, and I felt suddenly ashamed. I had plowed through the preface to the book, “The Joy of Sales Resistance” with great relish and satisfaction (although I do not quite share Mr. Berry’s distain for hypertext). It is always heart-warming to find an author or a musician with whom one feels kinship, and I felt that in this book. But the further I read the more I realized how cowardly it was of me to have stopped writing here.

III.

I think that as adults, we are inclined to discount the effects of peer pressure as something that only works on children. I think this is because we confuse the term “peer pressure” with the activities being pressured, and once we are no longer of an age that we can be pressured into those activities, we believe that we can no longer be pressured into any activities. We believe we are immune.

Moreover, because we associate peer pressure with teenage vices, we assume that, if an activity is good or at least morally colorable, peer pressure isn’t and can’t be the mechanism that encourages us to engage in the activity. We don’t want to think that we have to be coerced into doing what’s right. If it’s what’s right, of course we were going to do it all along, and not because we were pressured into it.

It gets a dirty name, this kind of pressure, because we are conditioned to see its presence only when its effects are bad, but the pressure has all sorts of effects. It socializes us. It protects us from offending others, and keeps us swimming with the school. I suspect that social pressures do a lot of good in the world in terms of making sure we get along as well as we do.

Wendell Berry again, from the same book:

A conservation effort that concentrates only on the extremes of industrial abuse tends to suggest that the only abuses are the extreme ones when, in fact, the earth is probably suffering more from many small abuses than from a few large ones. By treating the spectacular abuses as exceptional, the powers that be would like to keep us from seeing that the industrial system (capitalist or communist or socialist) is in itself and by necessity of all of its assumptions extremely dangerous and damaging and that it exists to support an extremely dangerous and damaging way of life. The large abuses exist within and because of a pattern of smaller abuses.

You see where this is going. What’s acceptable and unacceptable — the way we’ve been pressured into behaving — has a dark side in the area of consumption, in the way we act in an economy. Nobody wants Exxon-Valdez, but everybody wants to drive their own car. Nobody wants the last manufacturing plant keeping the small town alive to shut down but everybody wants to pay less and less and less for household goods. Nobody wants to work a 70 hour week, but everybody wants a big flat-screen tv in the living room, and surround-sound, and better clothes and a new car for every driver every couple of years, and we want to replace them all cheaply when they break or when something new or different is sold (see, e.g., the early obsoleting of DVD by Blu-Ray, or any of a thousand other consumer goods advertising arms races).

I don’t mean to say that we fail to connect the dots between cheap goods from overseas and crippled local economies. Many people are able to see the causal links, but are unwilling to pay the social costs inherent in changing their consumption habits. And those who insist that we should change those consumption habits are ridiculed as anachronistic, as unrealistic, as overburdened by an embarrassing devotion to the natural world. (See, for instance, the characters portrayed by Jason Schwartzman and Mark Wahlberg in the film “I [Heart] Huckabee’s.”) The notion that we should all stop driving, for instance, is dismissed as unrealistic without an examination of why it is unrealistic.

The dismissal extends, I should add, all the way up to policy decisions on the international financial level. According to economist Ha-Joon Chang, from his fascinating book Bad Samaritans:

“[Proponents of the neo-liberal free-trade agenda] like to present globalization as an inevitable result of relentless developments in technologies of communication and transportation. They like to portray their critics as backward-looking ‘modern-day Luddites’ who ‘fight over who owns which olive tree’ …. It is argued that there is only one way to survive the historic tidal force that is globalization, and that is to put on the one-size-fits-all Golden Straitjacket which virtually all the successful economies have allegedly worn on their way to prosperity.”

IV.

Of course, it is indeed unrealistic to suggest that USians give up their cars and stop buying so much stuff. The system has been stacked against those options, with the result that people who argue for these things come across as radicals. “I live 15 miles from where I work, and in the afternoon I drive my kids between oboe lessons and soccer practice. How can I give up my car? And who has the time, anyway, to buy and prepare local food?”

It’s a real, and valid, question, but it also reveals something of how our choices contribute to the system. The thing is circular: the system which makes unrealistic certain lifestyles is only a system because so many people are already making choices which contribute to it. I emphasize that I am not saying that there is anything wrong, in the abstract, with living 15 miles from where one works, or taking the kids to oboe lessons and soccer practice. I am, however, saying that these decisions have effects which, when aggregated, may and probably do cost more than they benefit.

However the argument that we should choose to limit our participation in “normal” activities is not an argument that people who want to be taken seriously are able to make. It is an argument against not the excesses of our economy but against its ground-state.

This is precisely the sort of argument that feels unseemly for a law-student to make, not only because it is the sort of argument that people don’t take seriously, but also because it runs against the existing order and subverts the conventional wisdom about freedom of trade and lowered transaction costs, about opening borders and the global economy. About, quite possibly, strong property ownership rights being a prerequisite for other human rights. It runs against a lot of things that I tend to believe, actually.

So I stopped writing. And while I would like to say that I stopped writing out of a genuine conflict of values, it seems to me that such a conflict would probably make for some pretty good blogging, and that the conflict wasn’t the real reason to stop writing. I think that the real reason was that, as a law student, and as someone who was, and is, looking for work in the legal community, I did not believe that I could continue to pursue this line of thinking and questioning, even in private, even under a false name like this.

V.

The upshot of all of this — and I hasten to add this so as to avoid politically devastating charges of “elitism” — the upshot of all of this is not, I hope, for me to be relentlessly critical of virtually everything that U.S. and probably most first-world consumers (that is to say, “people” — and I often wonder at the objectification inherent in so ready a substitution) do on a day-to-day basis. I mean this on two levels. First, I would be deeply remiss, in the context of this sort of a mea culpa, to start pointing the finger around at other people for the simple fault of responding to the economic and social pressures that surround them. Certainly not after having spent so many words describing my own cowardice and how I believe it has operated in the context of writing on this website, to say nothing of how it has operated in my own consumption choices.

Second, it is important to distinguish between evaluating a person qua person and evaluating a person’s actions qua actions. This distinction is often missed in discussions of these sorts of categoric reforms by both sides, but more often (and, I suspect, deliberately) by those who argue in favor of the lifestyle quo ante. It is a rhetorical move that unfortunately seems to have a great deal of traction, and I hope to discuss it in a subsequent essay. For now suffice it to say that these arguments, the ones I have been barred by cowardice from making, should in no way be construed as critical of individuals or indeed of the larger institutions that make the first world such a varied, safe, and comfortable place to live.

The critique that others are making, and that I hope to add to, is of the systems put in place by those institutions, and of the culture fostered by those systems which serve not to increase an individual’s (particularly economic) choices but to limit them to the set of choices rigorously enforced by economic and social pressures. I hope to discuss these limitations in future essays, as they are numerous and complex.

This critique, as expressed in the world of food and food policy, has wound up creating some tentative alliances that make little sense in the current political spectrum. In an interview with “Crunchy Conservative” Rod Dreher, Michael Pollan apparently was “amused to learn that he’s got a following on the [political] Right … but he said that the more deeply he goes into writing about food culture, the more he’s discovering things that resonate with traditional conservatism.” To me, this is both intuitively correct and one of the best arguments that the traditional left-right categories are breaking down along new lines. Our politics will perforce evolve with our polities.

All of which is perhaps my way of saying that I am back. I hope to write three long-ish pieces a week and at least five smaller ones in between. I will probably have a few more editorial-type pieces to write as I try to come to terms with this new politics of food, but I have every hope of returning to writing about food and the law in short order. Thank you for coming back, and I hope you’ll stay.



A Bright Side

Is American Cheese the new American Wine? Is the faltering dollar good for the domestic artisanal food industry — or at least those parts of it which don’t rely on imports?

What has been good for wine has been good for cheese. The rising wealth and strong dollar of the 1990s sent Americans flocking to Europe, returning with a new understanding and appreci­ation of continental eating. Food has emerged as hip entertainment, with its own vibrant press, TVnetworks, and rock-star chefs. Movies about food and wine have found large, sophisticated audi­ences (“Eat, Drink, Man, Woman,” “Sideways,” “Big Night,” “Like Water for Chocolate,” “Ratatouille”). Increased concern for health and a growing sus­picion of conventional agriculture, spurred by crises like mad cow, bird flu, and tainted spin­ach, have focused the nation on small-scale local farming and the sustainability and traceability of our food supply. Meanwhile, Whole Foods Market has planted 263 stores around the country (many through acquisitions of regional chains) since the first opened in 1980. And who could have pre­dicted the French Paradox—the notion, according to a bestseller about the eating habits of France, that you can eat plenty of fat and stay slim? Or Dr. Atkins urging eager dieters to eat pork and but­terfat? More recently, the flaccid dollar and robust euro have made American wines and cheeses seem veritable bargains.

I have for a while maintained that there is more excitement and energy in the U.S. artisanal cheese industry than there is in European cheese. In part, this is surely due to our having farther to go: try speaking, reading, or typing the words “American cheese” without picturing something gummy, preternaturally orange, oversalted and individually wrapped.

However, I also suspect that european cheesemakers and regulators have done the industry a disservice in the long term due to the AOC/PDO/DOP/DOC system of trademark regulation. (Each of these terms, in a different language, stands for “Controlled Name of Origin” and I shall refer to them all under the term “DOP” for simplicity’s sake.) The DOP system sets characteristics that must be met if a product is to be referred to under a traditional name; i.e., if you want to call your blue cheese Stilton you have to use milk from these sorts of cows, and make it into wheels this big and age them for this long and so on. In a number of cases, qualification is tied to a region: you can’t call your blue cheese Rocquefort, for instance, unless you have made it from sheep’s milk and then aged it in caves in the department Aveyron, where they will be exposed to the airborne, naturally-occurring penicilium rocqueforti that lives there. This system allows for the same sort of protection that individual firms get through trademark law, but enables the protection to be shared by every firm that makes a product meeting the qualification.

However, there are times and occasions in which the DOP system can backfire. Because the definitions are backed by law, it can be difficult to adapt them to new circumstances. Last year, Newcastle Brewing Company ran into this problem. Newcastle had successfully petitioned for the creation of a DOP defining “Newcastle Brown Ale” as ale that was, inter alia produced in the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. When the brewco decided to move its operations across the river to Gateshead, it was required to petition again to expand the legal defintion of “Newcastle Brown Ale” so that ale produced in its new facilities could be marketed under the same label.

As another example: the DOP for Stilton was written some years ago and requires that “Stilton” be made with pasteurized milk, despite the fact that pasturized Stilton is a historical latecomer, and that the cheese had been made with raw milk for centuries prior to industrial cheese production. When Joe Schneider and Randolph Hodgson revived the traditional stilton recipe, they were prohibited by law from calling the product “Stilton” and instead have had to market it under the name “Stichelton”, which is the Middle English name for the city of Stilton.

DOP protection has done some good in protecting quality standards for traditional food products, and I certainly do not oppose its use. However it seems to me that, absent DOP protection, artisanal cheesemakers in the U.S. have more opportunities to innovate in their cheesemaking techniques which are driving quality and variety in American artisanal cheesemaking. I have little doubt that if the DOP system were introduced into the U.S., it would in short order be co-opted by industrial producers, and thereby used to constrain this innovation, and I have some fears that European cheesemaking, which enjoys DOP protection, doesn’t have the same opportunities to innovate.



Eating Well, Poorly

I was blessed in my childhood by having a mother who was very food-aware. We became farmers almost of necessity, as we were always very poor growing up: if we had not grown our own food, we would not have eaten. We never could afford health insurance, and because of this, my mother always sought to use food in place of medicine, and always sought prevention prior to illness rather than cure afterwards. “We can’t afford to get sick” she would joke, or half-joke anyway.

I never appreciated it at the time, because I saw our food as a mark of poverty and difference. Why should I have to suffer, i.e., not get to drink soda and eat fast food just because my parents were hippies and bad businesspeople? Field trips in school were particularly painful — other kids got to bring money and buy McDonald’s, I brought a big slab of homemade cornbread and a mason jar full of water.1 “Five dollars for lunch!” my mother would exclaim. “I can make lentil soup to feed all of us dinner and then lunch the next day for five dollars!”

My mother believes that food can replace medicine, that you could eat foods which kept up your immune system and avoid foods which depleted it. She had read studies on refined sugar, for instance, and always pointed out that not only does it rot one’s teeth, it apparently kills white blood cells. To my mother, it wasn’t that soda, for instance, or juice, was a pleasure which you should deny to avoid tooth decay and empty calories. It just didn’t make sense to drink it when water was free, for the same reason you wouldn’t pay somebody to hit you in the face with a shovel.

Naturally, I had a few years after I left home during which I ate all the foods that we kids weren’t supposed to eat. I think it’s interesting, though, how unintentionally I came back around to natural eating and food policy. I took a job at a deli in college and I loved it. It was down the street from my apartment and I was the opener; five, six days a week I would drag myself out of bed at six in the morning and run through the bitter cold (because it was always winter in those days, in my memory), and turn on the lights and make the coffee and set up the shops and do the preps and check in deliveries and try to make the morning cheerful for the early-birds and commuters. I loved it.

One thing led to another, I started working in food, and by the time I got to being a purchaser at Zingerman’s I had been cooking for a few years. I read Fast Food Nation and experienced two contradictory sensations. 1) During the act of reading the book I always really wanted a cheeseburger, and 2) every time I set the book down I didn’t want to eat anything that I hadn’t actually watched come up out of the ground. I kind of feel like that was a turning point for me. At the same time, I became very interested in the raw milk cheese ban and the science behind dairy production. What has struck me lately, thinking about this, is how holistic and connected all of these topics are. Raw milk takes you to e.coli takes you to grain feeding takes you to corn subsidy takes you to processed food and HFCS takes you to impending obesity crisis takes you to mediterranean diet takes you to local, seasonal eating and next thing you know you can’t. shut. up. about. food.

Which pretty much catches you up to the existence of Law for Food. Yesterday morning on my bike ride to school something else my mother used to say popped into my brain and stuck. Her friends used to ask how she managed to cook for all of us (and anybody else who happened by) the way she did (from scratch, often beginning with an armful from the garden or a quick trip to the root cellar) and she would explain that it was because didn’t work outside of the home. Then she would say how she believed that the peasant diet was the healthiest, most balanced diet you could eat. She would talk about how poor people can’t afford to get sick, so they don’t have the luxury of eating things that are bad for them, and she would also talk about the importance of the table, about how food builds community and how poor people have a better sense of community than the wealthy. Then she would say, and this always kind of confused me, “of course, nowadays you have to be rich to eat like a peasant.”

And it struck me how far I had come back around to seeing food the way my mother did, all those years ago when I was embarrassed to eat home-made food. It struck me that my mother’s little observation winds up being about the Farm Bill after all, and that, pace Marion Nestle, food is both love and health when your attitudes toward those things are in order.

Now, I realize how fortunate we were to have bought that farm outright, when my folks inherited some money, and that the reason we were able to eat so well was because we were land-rich and cash-poor. A lot of talk about nutrition can come across as unrealistic hectoring that doesn’t take into account the time and work constraints that we’re all under. Even if you own the land, growing your own food is a lot of work and requires a complete change in lifestyle and in attitude, and isn’t something everyone should or even can do. But we can do better than this. We can do better than inverting the economics of eating and promoting these unhealthy2 faux luxuries with the public funds.

Ultimately, the farm bill can never and should never put filet mignon on every table, but it can and does put ground beef — cheap, unsustainably-grown, overcrowded, medicated beef — in the drive-thrus and waterlogged cold cuts the lunchboxes. There are a lot of reasons, on the surface of it, to think that sustainable food, local food, and the rest of it are regressive; that what some of us are proposing is a return to the 19th century; that eliminating CAFOs and industrial food will raise the price of food, which will most hurt those who can’t afford local and sustainable food.

These objections do not make it past a surface analysis. Eliminating the farm subsidy means that the inverted food pyramid we currently consume will become a great deal more expensive; it means that Coke will no longer be price-competitive with water; it means that the marginal price difference between ethically-conscious meat and feedlot meat will diminish — reducing overall consumption of meat, making all meat more of a luxury and making ethically-conscious meat less of a luxury by comparison; it means we’ll be eating less food, but that the food we eat will be better. Most of all, it means we won’t be using federal money to make it easier for people without health insurance to buy foods that make them unhealthy, and harder for them to buy the foods that we all ought to be eating more of. It shouldn’t be necessary to own your own farm just to eat healthy.

1. This experience was formative in so many ways. For one thing, I have little patience now for parents who say that their kids just won’t eat vegetables. Eventually, they will, and even later, they will appreciate vegetables for what they are. For another, I will never be less than genuinely grateful for a home-made meal, no matter what. I resent the term “food snob” because I would rather have lentil soup with love than filet without. Because of my experiences in as a cook and seller of high-end food, and because I’m someone who frankly talks about food or food policy all the damn time, many of my friends say that they would never cook for me because they can’t cook well enough, and although I think they mean it as a compliment, it offends me a little. Early in our relationship, I was impressed when my significant other said to me, “I bet none of your friends ever cook when you’re around. I’d like to make you dinner.”

2. Lest we get into trade disparagement issues, I should point out that from a health standpoint everything is unhealthy when consumed in sufficient quantities, and that these quantities are different for different categories of food. It is simply a fact, though, that Americans in general overconsume in the fat and protien categories and underconsume in the vegetable and whole grain categories. From a health standpoint, there’s nothing wrong in principle with eating meat, just like there’s nothing wrong in principle with eating ice cream. There is, however, something wrong with eating ice cream at every meal, and the same thing is wrong with eating meat at every meal.



Pasturization and School Lunches

New to me, but back in 2003, Maciej over at Idlewords.com 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.



Objections to the Farm Bill On All Sides of the Political Spectrum

Not news, exactly, and readers of this blog probably already know all of this stuff, but a fairly conservative friend of mine asked me my opinion of the analysis contained in Michael Pollan’s recent New York Times op-ed about the 2007 Farm Bill. I wrote the following in return, and it occurs to me that I haven’t seen all of these points laid out on one page like this. Here’s a little cut ‘n paste magic from the email:

I think Pollan is exactly right, and what fascinates me about the Farm Bill debate is how it seems to have aligned so many different and traditionally opposed interests. Let me see if I have it right:

1) Fiscal conservatives, libertarians and economic commentators on the one side object to the farm subsidy because it distorts the market by causing farmers to plant more of a particular commodity than consumers would demand at the natural price and is therefore inefficient.

2) Animal welfare people object to it because the grain subsidy makes it cheaper to raise food animals in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) than via free-range. The situations at CAFOs place a great deal of strain on the cattle, which means that they require a great deal more antibiotics than they do if they are raised naturally — indeed the U.S. meat industry is the largest user of antibiotic medicine.

3) Environmentalists object to it for a number of reasons — CAFOs are terrible for the environment, for starters, and the kind of monoculture that big factory farms are planting to grow the subsidised crops destroys the soil, requires the use of ever-increasing levels of non-selective herbicides such as Round-Up as weeds develop immunity to the herbicide — and in recent times is requiring the use of genetically modified crops which are able to tolerate being grown in fields heavily laced with herbicides.

4) People who are taking a hard look at the immigration situation in the U.S. have come to discover that one of the reasons the Mexican corn industry went belly-up last year is the farm subsidy — and now there are some 170,000 Mexican agricultural workers without jobs and a lot of jobs in U.S. agriculture. The farm subsidy creates a situation in which we have to spend more money to keep immigrants out than we would if the economies of other countries were not placed at such a disadvantage.

5) On a related note, the farm subsidy is TERRIBLE for the economies of many third-world countries, for just the same reason: they have to compete with subsidised grain from the U.S.

6) Nutritionists tend to think that the farm subsidy is terrible for the American waistline because it subsidizes hydrogenated oils and animal products and high fructose corn syrup. Eliminating the farm subsidy would drive up the prices of many foods, but 1) most of those foods would be foods which are overabundant in the U.S. diet and which consumers ought to cut back on, 2) these prices are unnaturally low to begin with, and 3) the money saved on the Farm subsidy could, and should, in part be used to ensure that the truly poor do not starve. Indeed, the farm subsidy encourages all of us to eat things that are bad for us, but this encouragement become more and more pernicious the more a consumer has to stretch his or her food dollar.

The thing is, these are all sound economic arguments, and they all point to the same thing: the public interest and general welfare are not served by the farm subsidy as it is currently written. There is no metric to measure which shows that the farm subsidy is a good idea, outside of the share prices of big agribusiness. This legislation is corporate welfare in its most blatant and worst form. I highly recommend the first two sections of an essay entitled “That Which Is Seen and That Which is Not Seen” by F. Bastiat, for some traditionally conservative, laissez-faire economic reasons why this kind of spending is a terrible idea.

I have also found an op-ed by Victor Davis Hanson about why the farm bill is a terrible idea from a straightforward economic standpoint. I have no desire to discuss national politics, but I should like to say that this may be the first time I have agreed with Professor Hanson about a topic unrelated to classical philology. Opposition to this farm bill comes from all sides of the political spectrum.