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Submitted by KAT on Fri, 05/04/2007 - 11:30am.
Madison Avenue has a label for socially conscious shoppers who are willing to pay a premium for ethically and sustainably produced food: LOHAS. As in, Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability.
But the LOHAS crowd is being denied the one label it craves, COOL, aka Country of Origin Labeling. Under the COOL legislation, which Congress included in the 2002 Farm Bill, retailers were required as of September 2004 to provide labels revealing the country of origin for all fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, as well as meat, peanuts, and seafood.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the supermarket; food industry lobbyists bought themselves some back door delays from Congress. With the exception of the seafood industry, which was apparently not agile enough to escape getting caught in COOL’s nets, the legislation has yet to be implemented.
Debra Eschmeyer, program director for the National Family Farm Coalition, has done the math:
The clothes we wear are required to carry a label telling us what country they were made in; why shouldn’t we have access to the same information regarding the food we consume?
Matt and I have been scrutinizing the source of our food purchases for a long time now in our quest to eat more ethically, but lately, we’ve noticed that the fine print seems to have disappeared altogether. At first I thought maybe it was my aging eyeballs, but no, the frozen peas and corn from Whole Foods have taken a vow of silence, refusing to divulge their origins.
Trader Joe’s frozen peas are clearly labeled “Product of U.S.A.” But they’re not organic. Whole Foods, on the other hand, has organic frozen peas, but won’t tell you where they’re from. Presumably they’re foreign, because they’re certified organic by a private, for-profit corporation called Quality Assurance International.
We just want to know where our food comes from, as do the vast majority of Americans. A cabal of corporations and special interest groups doesn’t want us to have that option. And Congress is doing their bidding--bidness as usual.
So while an army of advertisers targets the lucrative LOHAs demographic by coating everything with a shell of sustainability, Congress withholds from us the single greatest weapon in our battle for better food—the right to know its origins. Why are the food manufacturers so determined to keep their sources a secret? Maybe because a “Product of China” label on a bag of frozen peas just doesn’t have the kind of cachet that translates into ka-ching.
Submitted by KAT on Thu, 05/03/2007 - 9:14am.
Yum Brands, proud parent of Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut, has had a spell of bad yuck recently. First came the Taco Bell E. coli episode. Then came the vermin-filled video that quickly went viral, starring the rat pack who turned a West Village Taco Bell into their very own after hours supper club.
Nothing slows fast food sales faster than viruses and varmints, and, sure enough, Yum Brands announced Wednesday that its overall U.S. operating profits fell 11% in the first quarter.
Yum Brand shares promptly soared to a record high on the New York Stock Exchange.
It’s not that Wall Street’s bullish on bacteria, or unperturbed by pests. Strong sales are what floats investors’ boats, and Yum Brand’s got ‘em—in China.
Sales have been terrific in the land where formica’s a food additive, more than offsetting the decline in U.S. earnings.
We learned last week that Chinese food producers routinely add melamine, a coal-derived chemical, to a wide variety of grain-based food products. The practice is widespread and appears to have been going on for more than fifteen years, according to an account in the China Post:
Call it a culinary culture clash. We say “contaminant,” they say “revenue enhancing additive.”
No wonder Yum Brands finds plenty of takers for its take-out in China. Apparently, if you taint it, they’ll say “yum.”
Submitted by KAT on Tue, 05/01/2007 - 10:10am.
I was walking along West Broadway on my way to meet Matt for lunch yesterday when I impulsively decided to pop into the Soho Smith & Hawken’s in the hopes of finding a packet or two of Osaka purple mustard greens. The Seeds of Change revolving rack was out of my favorite greens, but the store had plenty of one of my most despised greens--and yellows--the Miracle-Gro label.
The sight of this toxic turquoise fertilizer dominating the shelves of a store that pioneered the rebirth of organic gardening in the U.S. gives me the heebie-jeebies. How does Paul Hawken, the original crunchy capitalist, feel about having his name attached to a company that’s now owned by Scott’s, the giant chem corporation that’s in cahoots with Monsanto, and run by a former Wal-Mart executive?
Back in the day, I schlepped countless bags of Smith & Hawken’s mushroom compost home to mulch my rooftop roses, and they also sold their own brand of organic fertilizers in little 5 pound brown bags, with different blends for vegetables, bulbs and flowers--perfect for city dwellers with tiny terraces and windowboxes. Or renegade roof gardeners like myself.
Their selection of fine English gardening tools and fancy Felco pruners was notoriously expensive but fun to fantasize about, and sometimes even affordable if you waited for them to go on sale.
Now, the tools are all cheap Made-in-China knock-offs, and the fertilizers are brought to you by Scott’s, which has teamed up with Monsanto to develop a genetically modified grass that’s resistant to Monsanto’s signature herbicide, RoundUp, so that gardeners “can plant the turf and spray weed-killing chemicals without worrying about harming their lawn.” The Department of Agriculture has yet to approve it, citing environmental concerns.
A sickly Agent Orange aura hangs over the whole enterprise now, and no wonder; Jim Hagedorn, CEO of Scotts Miracle-Gro, is a former F-16 fighter pilot, who “views grass and gardens as a commercial combat zone,” according to a recent profile in U.S. News and World Report. "I run my own war every day," he told them. "Instead of taking land, [we gain] market share... I would like Scotts to be the McDonald's of lawn and garden.”
I guess this combative mindset explains Scott’s decision to sue Terracycle, a tiny start-up founded by some eco-geeks in a Trenton, New Jersey enterprise zone. Terracycle sells organic fertilizers made from worm poop and packaged in used plastic bottles.
The fledgling business, founded in 2003 by a Princeton dropout, has yet to turn a profit, but it’s turning up on the shelves of big box stores like Home Depot. In other words, trespassing on Hagedorn’s turquoise-tinged turf. Evidently, Miracle-Gro’s unwilling to surrender a single inch of shelf space, so they’ve gone on the attack, filing a lawsuit against Terracycle.
Scott’s claims that Terracycle’s packaging steals Miracle-Gro’s trademark green and yellow and is designed to fool consumers. Just imagine how disappointed you’d be if you went to your local garden center looking for funny colored synthetic chemicals to give your plants a nitrogen rush and accidentally came home with an all-organic fertilizer derived from worm poops and sold in a secondhand soda bottle.
As Grist’s David Roberts notes, the lawsuit has brought Terracycle “boatloads of free advertising out of its innovative strategy: rather than creating new bottles for the product, it asks schools and churches to collect used 20-oz. soda bottles. For each bottle collected, the company donates a nickel to the charity of the collector's choice.”
How great that Miracle-Gro is boosting upstart start-up Terracycle’s sales with the kind of publicity that only a huge corporation like Scott’s can buy. Looks like Hagedorn the blowhard’s got some blowback coming his way.
Hagedorn’s determined to not just hold on to Miracle-Gro’s market share, but to cut into organic fertilizer sales with its own line of organic fertilizers, just to hedge its bets while it waits for the feds to give the RoundUp-Ready transgenic grass the green light.
Scott’s is pumping up its advertising, too, in an effort to appeal to “the Internet generation,” according to the U.S. News and World Report. Hagedorn’s strategy? "We need to make gardening seem edgy and hip."
Good luck with that, Scott’s. Your CEO’s a 51 year old fossil fuel fossil who collects muscle cars and proudly displays a picture of himself in his office giving the finger, as U.S. News and World Reports noted, citing these as example of Hagedorn’s “spunky side.” How juvenile. Smells more like mothballs than teen spirit.
Bottling up worm compost tea and selling it in old soda bottles, now, that’s cutting edge. The twenty-something founders of TerraCycle were savvy enough to mock Scott’s sourpuss lawsuit with a website called suedbyscotts.com, which also encourages donations to the TerraCycle Defense Fund. Sweet.
Hagedorn, like so many CEOs who try to paper over their petro-based businesses with a green veneer, doesn’t understand the demographic he aims to appeal to. Smith & Hawken is losing money, and stocking its shelves with Miracle-Gro will only hasten its decline.
If Hagedorn really wants to board the socially conscious business bandwagon, he can get a crash course in conscientious capitalism by reading a new book called Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement In the World Came Into Being. It’s written by a guy named Paul Hawken.
Submitted by KAT on Mon, 04/30/2007 - 5:35pm.
When we welded our wagon to China’s economic engine, did we sign on to an environmental train wreck?
I’m glad the Chinese government’s hired clean tech trailblazer William McDonough’s design firm to create a green blueprint for six new cities and a village--who better to help China bind its ever-widening carbon footprint than McDonough, the internationally influential green architect and designer who turned Ford’s River Rouge factory green and helped Nike create a biodegradable sneaker?
But China may have misinterpreted his “Waste = Food” concept. I’m pretty sure McDonough doesn’t advocate putting pulverized scraps of plastic in pet food, or making soy sauce out of human hair (not to mention lard out of sewage.)
The premise of McDonough’s environmental manifesto, Cradle to Cradle, co-written with Michael Braungart, a former Greenpeace activist turned sustainability scholar, is that every product we make should be non-toxic and biodegradable, or else endlessly recyclable. It’s a utopian vision for a garbage-and-pollution-free future.
Maybe McDonough’s tilting at wind turbines, but his ground breaking, earth saving designs have been hailed by environmental activists and not-so-crunchy corporatists alike. Steven Spielberg reportedly wants to do a documentary about McDonough’s heroic eco-endeavors.
And Chinese officials recognize the need to tackle the problems their overheated economy poses for the planet. In fact, while we fume about all the greenhouse gases China’s spewing, they may actually leave us in the dust when it comes to cutting carbon emissions.
But while the Chinese government may be leaning green, its business sector has been caught red-handed pumping up its profits by dumping chemicals into our food supply. The confirmation that melamine has been routinely added to animal feed to cut costs makes you wonder what else they might be putting in the food they’re shipping to our shores.
The other day we asked our friend Sue, who’s been to China several times, whether she would trust Chinese produce that’s labeled organic. “No way!” was her emphatic response.
And yet, more and more of the organic food we buy in the U.S. is coming from China. Supposedly, our food manufacturers have to rely on imports because American farmers simply can’t grow enough organic produce to meet the ever-growing demand.
I accepted this notion at face value until my friend and fellow NYC Food Systems Network colleague Christina Grace, a farmers’ market maven, pointed out that it really comes down to the fact that Big Food would rather cut corners and buy cheap from China than support America’s small family farms.
After all, it’s a terrific boon to the corporate bottom line to be able to do business with suppliers who can manufacture their products without the added expense of such niceties as worker safety or environmental protection.
Of course, here at home, the agencies entrusted to protect us aren’t doing such a bang-up job of things, either. It doesn’t help that the FDA’s budget keeps shrinking even as food imports rise. Welcome to Small Government, a wholly owned subsidiary of Big Food.
The USDA’s going to compensate the pork producers for the millions of dollars they’ll lose when they euthanize those 6,000 melamine-tainted hogs. Bereaved pet owners, on the other hand, will get nothing.
So taxpayers get stuck with the bill for Big Ag’s habit of salvaging substandard pet food and feeding it to the pigs. The dead dogs and cats? Just collateral damage. You know, like all those Iraqi civilians.
Submitted by KAT on Sun, 04/29/2007 - 8:24pm.
Farmer Kitty’s all in favor of promoting a plant-based diet, despite being an unapologetic carnivore. But, like most felines, she devotes the lion’s share of her waking hours to catnapping. Her less than rigorous routine goes something like this; plant a few seeds, catch a few z’s.
And once the seeds are sown, she tends to forget to tend them, thanks to all that mercury-tainted tuna she’s eaten over the years. So we insisted that she start her seeds in our self-watering germination trays this spring. The seedlings never dry out or get overwatered, because they sit on top of a strip of capillary matting which wicks water from a reservoir underneath on a need-to-grow basis. And the lid helps keep the soil temperature even so the seeds germinate faster.
All you have to do is remember to refill the reservoir every now and then and remove the lid once the seeds sprout. It’s the most painless form of propagation short of just throwing seeds on the ground and crossing your fingers, which is my other preferred method.
I’ve never seen these trays in a store but you can find them online at Gardener’s Supply and Lee Valley. If you’ve always wanted to try your hand at growing your own herbs or salad greens but hesitated because you’re not a natural nurturer, these trays are for you; they’ll give the brownest of thumbs a greener patina.
Submitted by KAT on Fri, 04/27/2007 - 8:26pm.
First, the dogs and cats got kidney failure. Now, some 6,000 hogs in seven states will have to be euthanized after consuming tainted feed. Chickens may have eaten melamine-contaminated food, too.
Oh, and then there’s the three hundred or so hogs that have already been slaughtered and shipped off to market. Suddenly bringing home the bacon sounds slightly sinister.
The FDA expressed confidence a few weeks ago that the tainted wheat gluten hadn’t entered the human food chain, but they acknowledge now that plastic-polluted pork may indeed have entered our food supply.
Still puzzling over how a chemical used to make plastic found its way into the food chain? The evidence suggests not a random or accidental contamination, but rather a systemic and deliberate reliance on melamine, which is high in nitrogen, to artificially elevate the protein content of wheat gluten, rice protein, and other grain-based products used in animal feed as well as human food products.
Melamine is only mildly toxic, but experts have detected a second contaminant in the tainted pet food called cyanuric acid, which, when combined with melamine, appears to prompt the formation of crystals in urine, which in turn can cause kidney failure.
Cyanuric acid has all kinds of useful applications, apparently; it’s good for stabilizing the water in outdoor swimming pools and hot tubs, as well as boosting the protein content in food.
As Kitty Pilgrim reported Thursday on Lou Dobbs Tonight:
Making lard from sewage? Suddenly, the Yes Men’s “reBurger” satire seems more prescience than parody.
Submitted by KAT on Thu, 04/26/2007 - 5:47pm.
Factory farms are incredibly efficient powerhouses of pollution; they simultaneously sully our air, soil and water.
I always assumed the CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) could get away with dumping so much toxic waste and generating all those greenhouse gases because enforcement of environmental regulations is so lax.
But in Michigan, the factory farms are free to spew all the noxious sludge and fumes they create. Call it the No Particle Left Unpolluted Act. From the Muskegon Chronicle:
Ah, but there’s a new sheriff in town; on Wednesday, Michigan Democrats introduced legislation intended to halt the CAFOs’ unrelenting assault on their surroundings. One bill would impose a moratorium on construction of CAFOs. Another would give the Department of Environmental Quality more clout.
The pro-CAFO contingent claims that if it can’t pollute, it can’t compete. The Farm Bureau immediately cried foul, claiming that the right to foul our land, air and water is essential in a global economy:
It all makes sense when you think about it. Our demand for cheap food compels us to ship more and more of the foods we eat from China, where pollution is just the cost of doing business.
If we hold Michigan’s farmers to a higher standard, they’ll have to pass the cost of compliance on to the consumer. Currently, they’re passing the costs off to the environment and the next generation. Talk about “unfair.”
Submitted by KAT on Wed, 04/25/2007 - 1:45pm.
The consumers have spoken, and the message to Monsanto is loud and clear: we don’t want yer stinkin’ recombinant bovine growth hormone. Sales of organic dairy products have skyrocketed as people steer clear of rbST for fear that it’s harmful to consumers and cows alike.
If you’re not up to speed on the controversy, watch the video Stephen Colbert aired last week from “the Prescott Group, America's leading agri-pharma- petro-chemico-militaria-industrial corporation.” A public service announcement disguised as a parody of corporate propaganda, it surely curdled rBST-tainted milk sales even further.
Given the choice, we’d prefer not to be guinea pigs for a hormone whose side effects on humans are unknown. What we do know about rbST is that the cows injected with it suffer from painful udder infections which then require massive doses of antibiotics.
So Monsanto is fighting back the only way it can: by attempting to deny us that choice. The multinational biotech behemoth has filed a complaint with the FDA which claims that “rBGH-free” labels on dairy products “deceptively imply negative health effects from rBGH.”
It may well be that rBGH is, in fact, perfectly safe for humans. But it’s definitely bad for bovines. “Dairy cows are already bred for high milking output, and the artificial boost from rBGH takes a toll on their bodies,” notes Christopher Wanjek, who covers the “Bad Medicine” beat for LiveScience. “For animal welfare reasons alone, consumers have the right to know how their milk is produced.”
Monsanto has been waging a pr battle on behalf of rBGH ever since the FDA approved its use back in 1993. When Fox News assigned two investigative reporters to do a four part series on rBGH for a Florida affiliate in 1996, Monsanto provided Fox executives with talking points that totally contradicted the reporters’ own research.
The reporters, Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, were ordered by Fox executives to air Monsanto’s false claims. They refused, and threatened to report Fox to the FCC. Fox responded by firing them. Akre and Wilson sued.
A Florida jury found Fox guilty of wrongful dismissal under Florida’s whistle blower protection laws, but Fox appealed, and in February 2003, a Florida Court of Appeals ruled in Fox’s favor. Why? Because it turns out that there’s no law against a news media outlet deliberately distorting or falsifying news. In other words, no laws were broken, and therefore, the reporters were not, technically, whistle blowers.
For the record, Fox News never denied that it pressured its reporters to broadcast a false story. Fox’s entire defense rested on the premise that the First Amendment grants broadcasters the right to lie or deliberately distort news reports.
I guess it shouldn’t be a shock that companies like Monsanto and Fox are in cahoots, conspiring to peddle their tainted products. Birds of a feather. May an avian flu-like pox plague both their houses, and the FDA's, too, if they cave in to this agribiz avarice.
Submitted by KAT on Tue, 04/24/2007 - 8:34am.
Apparently, we Americans are too stupid to tell the difference between real chocolate and the cheap, waxy “chocolatey” concoctions that food manufacturers fabricate out of artificial sweeteners, milk substitutes, and partially hydrogenated oils (i.e. those toxic trans fats). Or so the Chocolate Manufacturers Association is hoping.
Real chocolate is made, of course, from cocoa beans. But thanks to global warming, cocoa bean crop yields are dropping as temperatures rise. The specter of parched cocoa plantations has sent the cost of cocoa beans up about 28% in recent months.
So the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, whose members include Hershey, Nestlé, and Archer Daniels Midland, are lobbying the FDA to change the legal definition of chocolate to let them substitute cheap vegetable oils for cocoa butter.
But vegetable oils and cocoa butter are two entirely different ingredients. As Brad Kinstler, the CEO of See’s Candies (one of Warren Bufffet’s tastier acquisitions), told Bloomberg News, “If the margarine manufacturers could call their product butter instead of being required to call it margarine, wouldn't it strike the consumer as being odd?''
Yes, and it would strike this consumer as another egregious example of Big Food’s utter contempt for the American public. The “citizens’ petition” these multinational corporations have submitted to the FDA presents this proposed redefinition as a boon to consumers. As Hershey’s spokesman, Kirk Saville, told Bloomberg News:
Ah yes, “flexibility”--i.e., the option to use cheap, toxic trans fats instead of antioxidant rich cocoa butter. As today’s NY Times notes, “Eating dark chocolate may be almost as effective at lowering blood pressure as taking the most common antihypertensive drugs.” The fat found in cocoa butter is, like olive oil, one of the “good” fats.
The partially hydrogenated oils the Chocolate Manufacturers Association wants to substitute, on the other hand, constitute a known health hazard. But Hershey, Nestle et al insist that Americans don’t actually care what goes into the food we eat, as Cybele May, founder of candyblog.net, noted in an LA Times op-ed. She cites a passage from the petition:
So switching from costly, heart-healthy cocoa butter to artery clogging trans fats constitutes a “technical improvement” or “manufacturing efficiency.”
May points out that it’s perfectly legal for manufacturers to sell their cheap chocolate flavored confections. They just can’t call them “chocolate.”
But Big Food insists that cocoa butter and vegetable oils are interchangeable. In theory, this means that if you’re trying to butter up your sweetie with a fancy box of chocolate, you could save yourself a few bucks by bucking the Scharffen Berger and springing for the Whitman’s Sampler instead.
In actual practice, of course, this could incite a 21st century Valentine’s Day Massacre, with hordes of furious females hurtling boxes of bargain basement bonbons at their cheapskate dates. Because nothing says “I’m just not that into you” like a box of crappy, waxy candy.
And nothing says “We work for the corporations, not the consumers” more than the FDA’s willingness to consider the merits of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association’s petition. As a nostalgic nod to the democracy we once were, the FDA allows the public to provide feedback on these matters, and tomorrow, April 25th, is the very last day for us to tell the FDA to take its greasy palms off our chocolate.
You can take a catastrophically mismanaged war, tie a ribbon around it and call it a victory for democracy, but it’s still a disaster and a defeat. And a box of partially hydrogenated, artificially flavored candy can never be a box of chocolates. It wouldn’t even fool Forrest Gump.
Submitted by KAT on Mon, 04/23/2007 - 1:11pm.
Earth Day brought us a smorgasborg of sustainable sound bites, a bull horn of plenty, if you will. I’m sure I missed a few, and no doubt so did you, so I’d like to take this opportunity to steer you to some of my favorites.
Bill Maher delivered a stinging rant about our embattled bees at the end of last Friday’s New Rules; the transcript’s on Huffington Post, and it will be rebroadcast on HBO tonight at 8, but here’s a highlight:
Speaking of pesticides, CBS Sunday Morning ran a terrific profile of Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring single handedly got Americans rethinking our cavalier use of chemicals back in the 60’s. You have got to see the creepy, Bela Lugosi-like spokesman for the chemical industry who denounces Carson in wildly melodramatic fashion:
This hilariously histrionic snippet is followed by Robert Kennedy Jr., an environmental activist/lawyer himself, noting that when his uncle, who was President at the time, read Silent Spring, he said, 'I'm gonna appoint an independent commission to investigate whether it's true or not. “ The commission met for almost a year, and determined that “essentially everything in Rachel Carson's book was true."
We’ve got a current day Carson in the person of Bill McKibben, but the odds of his latest plea for environmental sanity, Deep Economy, landing on Dubya’s nightstand are, sadly, nil. Yesterday’s NY Times Book Review summed up McKibben’s clarion call to reduce our consumption and renew our communities as follows:
McKibben’s premise got some scientific validation in an article from last Friday’s Washington Post, “Baby Boomers Appear to Be Less Healthy Than Parents”:
Yeah, like living well. Which, contrary to the conventional wisdom, isn’t so much about how much stuff you have. He who dies with the most toys doesn’t win. If he’s accumulated all that crap at the expense of spending time with family and friends, he might just be one of the bigger losers.
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