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

Our Long National Nightmare…
6 July 2008, 7:53 pm
Filed under: food politics, Raw Milk, Regulation

Having already solved all of the other food safety problems that place thousands, of U.S. citizens at risk, Federal, State, County, and Local officials today dedicated their remaining resources to fighting vendors in small, open-air food markets in rural Riverside and San Bernadino Counties, California.

There’s not a proliferation of these cases,” said Stephanie Weissman, an assistant district attorney in Riverside County, who is part of the team. “We’re just catching them” [emphasis added]

So, this must be a serious problem, then, if, even though there are only a few cases, the district attorney’s office is taking them on. I guess the crime rate in Riverside County is so low that the ADAs were just sitting around hoping to catch a jaywalker in the act, before all this raw milk cheese business caught their eye. I wonder how many people were at risk of eating raw milk cheese?

Chandler said the task force’s aggressive approach is paying off. At most sites, fiesta attendance has plummeted from 300 to 30, evidence that that the word is getting out.

Wow. I bet those 30 people are glad that los federales came in and saved them from themselves, and that the good people of California were willing to dedicate their hard-earned tax dollars to this endeavor, especially in this time of economic decline.

He doesn’t know how many Inland residents have been sickened, because food-borne illness often manifests itself with flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or fever.

“They may not realize that they might have gotten sick drinking raw milk taken from an infected goat’s teat,” Chandler said.

But they might realize it and avoid the particular vendor that sells bad cheese. They might also not be getting sick. This meddling nabob just admitted that he spent who knows how much of other people’s tax money saving 30 people from a danger that could very well never materialize. Anyone want to do a quick cost-benefit analysis on that?

Even better is Chandler’s attack on parajetes, a drink made from raw milk, “coffee, cocoa, cinnamon, chocolate sugar, and 100[%?] pure cane alcohol.” Chandler says two things about it:

“Parajetes is very close to wood alcohol,” Chandler said, citing its high alcohol content. “I’ve seen people drinking it destroyed by 8 o’clock in the morning.”

Uh, Mister, first of all, wood alcohol is not poisonous because it has a lot of alcohol in it. Wood alcohol is poisonous because it’s a special kind of alcohol called methanol, which is a poison. And second, if I lived in a place where ignorant puritans like this guy could compel the police to go break up a farmer’s market just because he doesn’t know how many people might get sick from eating there, I’d probably have to tie one on early in the morning too.

I can’t believe we’re losing to these people.


Iodized Salt
25 June 2008, 12:20 am
Filed under: Chemistry & Health, Eating Science

Since switching to sea salt some years back, I have occasionally wondered whether I was setting myself up for iodine deficiency. I wonder no more.

“Luxury Comfort Food” is an Oxymoron
24 June 2008, 11:59 pm
Filed under: consumerism, Economics of Eating

Too right.

Raw Milk Cheese — In My Kitchen!
24 June 2008, 12:41 pm
Filed under: Cheese, Raw Milk, Recipe

Not to gloat or brag or anything, but I am staying the summer in a jurisdiction where it is legal to sell raw milk. I have today turned a gallon of locally-produced raw milk into a few balls of mozzarella and about a third of a pound of ricotta. They are certainly not the best cheeses I’ve ever had, but they were a lot of fun to make, and I am kind of proud of them.

I highly recommend Dr. Fankhauser’s Cheese Page for detailed, step-by-step information. Dr. Fankhauser has recipes (with photos) for all sorts of soft and semi-soft cheeses, as well as for things like homemade rennet. (I’m eager to make his Limoncello recipe, too.) From my background as a cheesemonger I was not lacking for theory, but this process has reminded me that there is a great deal of daylight between theory and practice.

I have typed up a few notes in case anyone else wants to try this. It’s a great deal of fun and totally worthwhile. I pasteurized the starter base — last night I added active yogurt to a few cups of raw milk to keep as future starters, and I pasteurized that milk because I wanted to be sure that it had nothing but the yogurt culture in it. I did this more for consistency of product than for safety, and I do not believe it will affect the ultimate flavor as very little starter goes into each batch of cheese (2 oz. starter per gallon of raw milk.) After a while, I may make a new starter from raw milk.

I was surprised by how acid the starter was this morning, and a little worried that I was going to have acid cheese, but however it happened, the cheese is mild and soft-tasting, with a little bit of that milky sweetness that you want from cow’s-milk mozzarella.

Invest in a good thermometer before you get started. A thermometer is the single object you will most interact with while making cheese. It should clearly show the temperatures without you having to guess between them. I made do with a candy thermometer which broke the temp into five-degree intervals so I was doing a lot of guessing. It turned out alright, but the anxiety isn’t worth it. You really only need to see the temps between about 60f and 200f, so a candy thermometer or a roast thermometer aren’t going to be great for this. Also, the thermometer should clip to the side of the pot so you don’t have to keep sticking it in, taking it out, washing it, forgetting where you set it to dry, &c.

When you make ricotta, you will smell the same flavor that you can taste on, for instance, Cheetos. That doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong: processed cheese products such as Cheetos have dessicated whey in them. I gave my whey to a local pig farmer because I’m angling for some guanciale or lardo this fall.

Working clean: I used quat sanitizer that I got from a restaurant supply store as a final rinse on all my utensils and so on. You can also use distilled vinegar if you rinse everything off with really hot water (you don’t want the vinegar to contaminate the cheese.) I think it’s important to be as safe as possible when making raw-milk cheese at home because this is how raw-milk cheese has gotten a bad name. This means using fresh milk from grass-fed cows, using clean containers and utensils, and being ever-mindful of cross-contamination. Most raw-milk disease outbreaks have been traced back to so-called “bathtub cheeses” made under unsanitary conditions. Don’t take any risks. Don’t make it harder for the rest of us.

Be careful with pasteurized milk, though, too. All pasteurization means is that many of the bacteria were cooked at the time of pasteurization. It doesn’t mean they can’t come back, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t cross-contaminate after pasteurization.

But do make the cheese. Support a local dairy. Have something to brag about when tomatoes come in. It really is a lot of fun.

Obesity and Activity
19 June 2008, 3:54 pm
Filed under: Food and Health

Via Marion Nestle, we have news of a study which suggests that the lack of physical activity is not the cause of increasing obesity in Europe. From the abstract:

As physical activity expenditure has not declined over the same period that obesity rates have increased dramatically, and daily energy expenditure of modern man is in line with energy expenditure in wild mammals, it is unlikely that decreased expenditure has fuelled the obesity epidemic.

If this is the case, then it seems highly likely that the increased obesity rate in the population is due to overconsumption of food. Note that the study does not suggest that energy expenditure is unconnected to obesity, but rather that energy expenditure has remained constant during a period in which obesity increased in the population.

The Power of Just-in-time Logistics, in the Palm of Your Hand

In today’s New York Times, David Pogue reviews a device called the Ikan which seems to be a combination supermarket scanner, list compiler, and web-based shopping service. It works like this: as you use your kitchen items, you can scan them into the Ikan device, which sits on your countertop. The Ikan complies a list of items, and you can add to the list by dictating items which don’t have a scannable label. The list is viewable online, and, once it’s complete, you can click “shop” or something, and Ikan will have the contents of your list delivered to your door. Reactions, as you might expect, are mixed:

Old-school homemakers may consider it a silly redundancy. How much more effort is it, they ask, to maintain a handwritten list? And isn’t going to the grocery store more than just a time drain? Isn’t it also a little outing, a small source of pride and accomplishment, an opportunity for social interaction?

Other people can’t believe the amount of time this system saves. You’ve just compressed a two-hour weekly errand into about 10 minutes. All you have to do is approve the illustrated, error-proof online shopping list, and then let somebody else battle the traffic, haul the bags and pay for the gas.

Before I get into the substantive merits or flaws of the Ikan, I should say that I rather suspect that this is a bad time to introduce a product like this one. With rising food, gas, and credit prices, I have trouble imagining that this sort of gadget / service is high on many people’s purchasing list.

I should think that, if the Ikan were able to overcome that setback, though, and reach a certain customer density, it could realize some efficiencies which are friendly to the ecology and the human environment. Specifically, I would suspect that one delivery van bringing groceries to several houses in a neighborhood produces less congestion, less noise pollution, less wear and tear on roads, and less gasoline per pound of merchandise than each of those households doing their own shopping. I would consider that to be a good thing.

On the other hand, it seems to me that the Ikan service relies on a number of presuppositions which are difficult to reconcile with ethical eating / locavorism. For instance:

  • Food ordinarily has a label on it so that machines can identify it more easily.
  • Food is ordinarily available in the same condition, all year long regardless of season.
  • Food is ordinarily fungible.
  • Choosing one’s own food is an activity that one’s surrogate can do just as easily and just as well as oneself.

The presuppositions I’ve identified here are as good an example as any of the differences between arguing against the excesses and arguing against the ground-state. It should come as no surprise to anyone that there are positives to sending someone else to the supermarket for you. For one thing, your time is probably worth more than it would cost to pay someone else. For another, shopping at the supermarket is, I suspect, very few people’s idea of a pleasant experience: you have to deal with traffic getting there and parking once you’re there, and shopping-carriage traffic the whole time you are shopping; the lighting and the atmosphere are rarely inviting; the food is practically the same week after week — it never comes into season, it never gets ripe, it never smells like food. Doing a week’s worth of grocery shopping at the supermarket is pretty strictly a utilitarian ordeal, and as such, it is something one would outsource if one could.

I don’t mean to pick on the Ikan here: I simply thought it was a way to illuminate how institutions perpetuate themselves and the values that give them rise. If shopping at the supermarket has become unpleasant, then you can hire a stranger to shop at the supermarket for you. Instead of asking why shopping for food is so joyless, you can simply pay someone else to spend that joyless time for you. But you can only do this if food is fungible — one of the presuppositions that underlies our whole production and distribution system. You can only do this if a tomato is a tomato is a tomato — red, watery, with a thick skin to protect from bruising during transport, mealy of flesh and without discernible odor. If food is not fungible; if, say, a tomato from a local farm is not the same as a tomato of equivalent weight trucked across the country from California, then you can no more send somebody to the supermarket for you than you can go to the supermarket for yourself.

The system of food production and distribution we have in the U.S., which gives rise to institutions such as supermarkets and to their logical extensions like the Ikan, is responsible for two miracles. The first miracle is the one we all hear about: the miracle that, (present life-threatening food-borne illnesses aside,) you can go to the supermarket and buy a tomato any time you like, no matter where you are. This is a not-inconsiderable feat, and it is rightly emphasized, if a bit too often and too loudly, by the Old Guard of U.S. food and politics.

To my mind, however, the second miracle — the one that is almost never considered — is even more amazing. You can go to the supermarket and buy a tomato any time you want, but you will never want to.

Renewable Petrol
15 June 2008, 6:56 pm
Filed under: Corn-based Ethanol, Energy Costs, Food and Energy

No word on whether this process winds up being a net energy loss like corn-based ethanol, but it sounds promising:

“Ten years ago I could never have imagined I’d be doing this,” says Greg Pal, 33, a former software executive, as he squints into the late afternoon Californian sun. “I mean, this is essentially agriculture, right? But the people I talk to – especially the ones coming out of business school – this is the one hot area everyone wants to get into.”

He means bugs. To be more precise: the genetic alteration of bugs – very, very small ones – so that when they feed on agricultural waste such as woodchips or wheat straw, they do something extraordinary. They excrete crude oil.

Unbelievably, this is not science fiction. Mr Pal holds up a small beaker of bug excretion that could, theoretically, be poured into the tank of the giant Lexus SUV next to us.

I’m excited. Since it runs off of cellulose, it may be able to run off of “waste” cellulose, meaning that it won’t, or mightn’t, anyway, have such an impact on food prices.