Eating Liberally

Eating Liberally Blog

WAL-MART: CAN A LEPER EVER CHANGE ITS SPOTS?

I’m shocked, shocked, to learn that Wal-Mart is passing off non-organic yogurt as organic!

Well, OK, I’m really not shocked at all; it’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from the Bentonville Behemoth. We’d all love to see Wal-Mart become a force for good, but every time they launch some initiative meant to give them a green sheen, another story comes out about Wal-Mart’s lousy labor practices, strong-arm tactics with vendors, or, in this case, deceptive marketing:

The Cornucopia Institute, a group that advocates for small organic farms, said in a complaint filed Tuesday with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington that grocery departments at Wal-Mart stores have been using in-store signs to misidentify conventional produce and dairy products as organic…

… "We live and die by the reputation of the organic label," said Mark Kastel, Cornucopia's cofounder. "If Wal-Mart cheapens it, we all lose."

Wal-Mart’s response? Its spokeswoman, Karen A. Burk, told the Washington Post, "it's hard to take their claims seriously," because, she said, one of Cornucopia’s founders, Mark Kastel, had worked for “a Wal-Mart rival.”

Burk was referring not to Costco, or Target, or Kmart, but to Organic Valley, a dairy cooperative for whom Kastel was once a consultant. As Wal-Mart watchers know, Organic Valley was Wal-Mart’s first supplier of organic dairy products, until Wal-Mart demanded that Organic Valley lower its wholesale prices and Organic Valley decided it couldn’t afford to do business the Wal-Mart way.

Wal-Mart whistleblowers have been proclaiming for months that Wal-Mart’s current supplier of “organic” diary products, Horizon, routinely violates the USDA organic standards. Horizon’s reliance on conventional feedlot practices has launched a boycott and a lawsuit from its parent company’s shareholders, who fear Horizon’s value will be destroyed by a bad reputation.

Sustainable agriculture advocates had hoped that Wal-Mart’s expansion into organics would enable more consumers to switch from conventional produce and food products. Sadly, it looks like the only switch is the non-organic stuff Wal-Mart’s putting out on its shelves under an “organic” sign. Looking for integrity from Wal-Mart? We might as well go looking for WMD’s in Iraq.

LOCAL’S NEW LUSTER

Small family farmers all over the country are reaping a happy harvest of new customers for their locally grown spinach, thanks to the E. coli outbreak that’s got everyone spurning spinach from the nation’s now-tainted “Salad Bowl.”

Why Roots Matter More: Health Scares and Mass-Produced Food Strengthen Demand for Local Growers” declares the headline in a special section on Small Business in today’s NY Times. The article confirms something I already knew; as awful as the E. coli outbreak was for the California growers and the unfortunate people who were sickened—three fatally—by the bacteria, it has been a godsend for local growers.

A few months back I met an organic farmer from Illinois who was utterly discouraged by the lack of demand for her painstakingly grown pesticide-free produce. With no farmers’ markets nearby and a populace who equated the word “organic” with “commie sympathizer,” she despaired of ever reaping any fruits from her labor.

Last week, she e-mailed me:

I can't keep up with the demand for spinach. I am working with another woman farmer to keep my new restaurant account going. You won't believe what I'm doing - growing all kinds of greens, lettuces, spinach, etc in raised beds in the field, covered by wire hoops with clear construction plastic over the hoops, secured by sandbags. So far it is working, even with 20 degrees last week…

It’s practically a Capra-esque turn of events. Although, if this were a Frank Capra movie, it wouldn’t be enough for the plucky lady farmers (played by Jean Arthur and Barbara Stanwyck) to triumph; we’d have to see the arrogant agribusiness titan (Lionel Barrymore) forced to fix his flawed farming practices by a populist politician (Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart, take your pick.) Now, there’s a movie I’d pay to see!

Sadly, in real life, the Central Valley crop growers will probably continue to irrigate their fields with treated wastewater, despite scientific evidence that it’s impossible to fully eradicate E. coli 0157:H7 from sewage effluent. And the source of the E. coli, the factory farms near the spinach fields, will continue to feed their cattle the grain that makes them sick in the first place.

The growers are trying to blame wild boars for the spread of the bacteria, and reporters are dutifully parroting this version of events. Forgive my skepticism, but I think the feral swine are a red herring.

The only place where I’ve read any reference to the wastewater issue is a website called CaliforniaProgressReport.com, where retired USDA soil scientist Frank Pecarich has posted a series of illuminating—and frightening—articles about this dubious practice.

Meanwhile, agribusiness is getting its just desserts, and the local farmers are finally getting some green for their greens. It’s nice to see some good come from bad spinach.

BEEF TAKES A BEATING

The beef industry is in for a really bad week—and it’s only Tuesday.

By the time Fast Food Nation opens on Friday, the news in today’s Washington Post about a Harvard Medical School study indicating a link between red meat consumption and breast cancer may have already taken a bite out of burger sales.

Beef profits were plummeting already, according to a report in today’s NY Times. Tyson Foods, the world’s largest beef producer, reported its third straight quarterly loss yesterday. Tyson is closing plants and reducing output in the hopes its beef operations will return to profit in 2007.

“If Tyson can make a compelling case it is seeing better trends at the moment in beef, then the worst could conceivably be over,” Jonathan Feeney, an analyst at Wachovia Securities, said in a report to investors. “At first glance, this seems unlikely.”

If Feeney had read Harvard’s study, which suggests that the growth hormones farmers feed their cows may be causing a particular kind of breast cancer fueled by estrogen and progesterone, he would have had to concede that it seems really unlikely.

Tyson’s problems are global; it’s the biggest exporter of American beef to Japan, but U.S. beef has been banned in Japan on and off since December of 2003, when mad cow disease turned up in Washington State.

The ban was lifted last year, and then reinstated a month later, and then lifted again a few months ago. All the uncertainty added to Tyson’s woes; American beef exports plummeted from a record 2.5 billion pounds in 2003 to 434 million pounds in 2004.

The sound of ground beef sales grinding to a halt would no doubt be music to the ears of many a vegetarian and animal rights activists. Will the graphic slaughterhouse sequence in Fast Food Nation be the coup de grace that eviscerates the factory farms? Some of us surely hope so.

GETTING TO THE “MEAT” OF CHEAP SAUSAGES

“Laws are like sausages,” as German chancellor Otto von Bismarck famously observed. “It's better not to see them being made.”

The truth of this saying was amply demonstrated on last night’s episode of “The F Word,” the British cooking show hosted by superstar Scottish chef Gordon Ramsay.

Ramsay enlisted food journalist Rachel Cooke to research what really goes into your average “economy banger,” i.e., supermarket-brand sausage. What she learned was pretty horrifying.

By law, a British sausage can have as little as 32% meat—“the rest of it is mainly water and bread crumbs, by the way”—but “more shocking still” is what that 32% includes: fat and connective tissue, meaning “skin, rind, gristle, tendon, and sinew.”

“So over half the so-called meat content can be gristle and fat, and it’s still allowed to be called “meat” on the label,” Cooke noted. “It is safe, and it is legal, but if I’m going to eat gristle and sinew, I want to know about it, and I think the current labeling system is misleading.”

Ramsay had food technologists analyze the contents of sausages from four major U.K. supermarkets. They found that two of Britain’s biggest chains, Sainsbury’s and Tesla, had the highest levels of connective tissues, at 22% and 24% percent respectively.

Cooke called on a sausage maker at the other end of the spectrum to comment. “I think the law should be looked into, just to clarify what is actually called “meat,” said Richard Douglas of Moen & Sons Butcher, winner of twelve awards at this year’s National Sausage Competition. “I wouldn’t really call gristles and skin, or connective tissues, ‘meat’.”

After serving the ‘barely legal bangers’ to a group of unwitting testers, Cooke informed them of all the icky ingredients. “It’s repulsive! I mean, you can basically just get away with anything by putting ‘meat’ down,” said one. “Now, I think I will go vegetarian!” said another.

You could argue, I suppose, that you get what you pay for, and one doesn’t associate a supermarket brand with the finer cuts of meat. But still, should they really be allowed to sell as sausages these concoctions of bread crumbs and connective tissues containing only the minutest quantity of actual meat?

Incredibly, our standards here in the U.S. may be lower still. We even permit bits of bone, or “MSM” as it’s known, short for “mechanically separated meat.”

No doubt consumers on both sides of the Atlantic would prefer to see better labeling of these marginal meat products, but that would require passing new labeling laws. And if the making of laws and sausages are such nasty enterprises, trying to revamp the laws that govern sausage-making must be doubly ugly.

WEEKEND GREENMARKET BLOGGING

After 12 long years in exile, the blue bears wandered out of the wilderness to go foraging at the Greenmarket. They’re tickled pink with their fresh-from-the-farm finds: golden beets, sweet potatoes, baby carrots, and Purple Beauty potatoes, which, when mashed, will give their netroot vegetable shepard’s pie a blue-hued crust. What better way to celebrate the fall—and the fall of the far right?

BLUE TIDE PROPELS GREEN WAVE

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz was so buoyed by Tuesday’s results that he nearly had to grip the podium to keep from levitating as he delivered the opening remarks at yesterday’s 2nd Annual Green Brooklyn Conference.

Fresh from a trip to London, where, he noted, they’re way ahead of us when it comes to tackling global warming, he vowed to make Brooklyn a model of urban sustainability. With progressives back in power after “12 years in the wilderness,” as Markowitz put it, the wind’s at our backs and the sun’s shining on us. What better time to push for more wind and solar power, along with other innovations that could mitigate the mess we’ve made?

I felt more optimistic about our country’s future than I have in a long time after attending the conference, hosted by the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment. There were so many passionate and eloquent speakers, so many people deeply committed to changing the way we do things in America, that even the gloomiest of environmental Eeyores would have to admit there’s hope.

Jeffrey Hollender, the President and CEO of Seventh Generation, gave a stirring speech about how to inspire greater corporate responsibility. He observed that much of a company’s value is determined by its reputation, giving consumers “the power to wipe out the value of many, many businesses.”

Hollender believes that employees are the greatest asset a company has, and cited as proof the fact that Fortune’s annual “100 Best Companies to Work For” routinely have higher returns than other corporations.

“We’re living in a world where economics constantly sends the wrong message,” he noted, adding that “organic food would cost half as much” if the true costs of our industrialized food chain, i.e. the toll it takes on our environment and our health, were taken into account.

It took Hollender 13 years to turn a profit with Seventh Generation, the line of non-toxic household cleaning products he started 18 years ago. I’m glad he had the vision to tough it out, because Hollender is exactly the kind of socially conscious CEO our country so desperately needs.

“We have to raise our hopes, raise our expectations, the mood of the country is changing,” Hollender said. And so it is. Adios to the toxic and deadly red tide that polluted our political waters for so long. The blue tide is here, and the future looks green!

SUPERMARKET REDEFINES “HEALTHY”

Hannaford Brothers, a Northeast supermarket chain, has begun rating the nutritional value of the foods and drinks it sells in order to help shoppers make healthier choices. Their “Guiding Stars” system, devised by an advisory panel of nutritionists, awards products zero to three stars.

By Hannaford’s criteria, 77% of the 27,000 food products they rated received no stars, including, ironically, things like Healthy Choice frozen entrees and Campbell’s Healthy Request soups. That’s because Guiding Stars, unlike the FDA’s less stringent guidelines, takes into account things like excess sugar, sodium, and fat.

Manufacturers have flooded the store shelves with food products proclaiming themselves “low fat” or “high fiber,” to make consumers feel virtuous about buying these items despite the fact that they’re loaded with all kinds of undesirable ingredients and have little or no nutritional value.

The mere fact that so many shoppers still look to processed foods to provide any kind of meaningful nutrition is a testament to the eternal optimism of the American consumer. You’d get a galaxy’s worth of Guiding Stars if you filled your cart with fish, skim milk, fruit, vegetables and Grape-nuts, but most of us aren’t inclined to do so.

According to the NY Times, “Nutritionists and food industry analysts said that Hannaford’s findings highlight some unpleasant truths about Americans and their eating patterns. People want to be healthier but do not want to change their behavior, and so marketers have stepped in with products that improve on the originals but still leave something to be desired.”

A. Elizabeth Sloan, whose company, Sloan Trends, tracks food industry trends, told the NY Times that food manufacturers deserve credit for trying to make their products healthier and can’t be expected to remove all the fat, sugar and salt:

“They have to keep the taste,” she said. “Look at all those super-duper healthy products that are in those healthy food stores. They don’t taste good…Nothing is healthy if you get right down to it, except mother’s milk, and that’s probably got too much fat.”

But how healthy is all that salt Americans are getting from these processed foods? The American Medical Association is so concerned about excess salt consumption that it recently called on the FDA to revoke salt’s status as a substance that is “generally recognized as safe” and start regulating salt as a food additive.

The NY Times highlighted the problem in an article entitled “The War on Salt:”

Part of the problem is that salt is an easy and cheap way to give processed foods an appealing taste. The manipulation of ingredients that occurs during manufacturing can diminish food flavors, requiring flavor to be added back in.

Gary K. Beauchamp, director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a research center in Philadelphia, says that salt also functions as a preservative, gives texture to food and helps hide unpleasant tastes that are sometimes created during processing.

Salt is also now being added, along with water and cheap ingredients like sodium phosphate, to chicken breasts and cuts of steak to add flavor. Labels for such products must indicate the sodium content and state that they are “enhanced.”

If you buy that, you’ll get no stars from Hannaford.

ARIZONA FREES HOGS & CALVES FROM CRATES

 
The practice of confining calves and hogs in crates so small they can hardly move is a form of agribusiness abuse so cruel that the European Union bans it outright.

American factory farms routinely rely on this inherently inhumane practice, but yesterday’s passage of Proposition 204 in Arizona proves that consumers are taking a greater interest in how we treat our farm animals.

Arizona voters passed Proposition 204—the Humane Treatment for Farm Animals Act—by an overwhelming margin, with 62 percent of the vote.

Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society of the United States president and CEO, hailed the passage of this “historic initiative:”

"Arizona voters stood up to factory farming lobby groups and affirmed that farm animals should have basic protections such as being able to turn around and extend their limbs. The overwhelming passage of Proposition 204 will not only help thousands of animals in Arizona, but will also send a message to factory farming operations across the country that they must end the most abusive practices."

The proposition won’t give currently confined livestock any wiggle room, sadly; it’s not due to take effect until December 31st, 2012. Better late than never, I guess. In the meantime, grass-fed meat and poultry offer an alternative to agribusiness animal abuse. The election’s over, but you can always vote with your fork.

 

SUPPORT YOUR FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD FARMER: VOTE DEMOCRATIC

Everyone’s sweating out the too-close-to-call races: Allen vs. Webb in Virginia; Burns vs. Tester in Montana; Talent vs. McCaskill in Missouri.

But I’m fixated on the contest for Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture, because the candidates, both farmers themselves, so perfectly embody their parties’ drastically different visions for the future of American agriculture.

Bill Northey, former president of the National Corn Growers Association, has an 800 acre farm where he grows corn and soybeans using conventional methods. He sees corn-based ethanol as Iowa’s salvation and defends the huge hog farms that make Iowa the nation’s leading pork producer.

Denise O’Brien grows organic fruits and vegetables on fifteen acres. Her campaign vehicle is a biodiesel-fueled school bus. O’Brien co-founded the Women, Food & Agriculture Network, whose mission is “To link and empower women to build food systems and communities that are healthy, just, and sustainable, and that promote environmental integrity." She supports the small hog farms that are less likely to pollute the air and water.

I don’t have to tell you their party affiliations. The stereotypes are so perfect it’s got the makings of a sitcom, but the outcome of this election is no laughing matter. Do we want a food chain shackled by Monsanto’s genetically modified monoculture monarchy, or a new era of small-to-medium sized family farms that would bring back biodiversity and boost the local economy in rural regions crushed by agribusiness?

A columnist for the Des Moines Register, Rekha Basu, explains why she’s backing O’Brien:

When we first contemplated a move to Iowa, we imagined a rural life like we'd had in upstate New York: a country house, milk delivered from the dairy in glass bottles, chicken bought from a nearby poultry farm and vegetables from a roadside co-op.

We hadn't completely grasped that Des Moines was city and not country, or that Iowa agriculture was almost strictly about corn, soybeans, cattle and hogs, produced on an exceptionally large scale, then shipped elsewhere.

That would explain why the corn at the grocery store came from Missouri, and the pork was no fresher or choicer than anywhere else. And despite being a soybean state, there was no Iowa tofu to be found; soybeans went to feed the livestock. It also explained why there were few full-time farmers, and why people scratched their heads when I asked about visiting a working family farm.

Iowa wasn't "farm" country culturally or economically. It was corporate-agriculture country, interests well represented by the Farm Bureau and the big producers' and growers' associations.

Sure enough, the Iowa Farm Bureau has thrown its weight behind Northey, who derides O’Brien as “an activist, a self described radical whose vision for Iowa agriculture is to return to a pre-1920’s era where everyone had 5-10 acres of fruits and vegetables and raised free-range chickens. It’s a fringe agenda, that’s not a practical vision for Iowa agriculture.”

Maybe Northey should read the article in yesterday’s Washington Post entitled “A Growing Trend: Small, Local and Organic,” which profiles the “niche” farmers who are making a good living tending a few acres of specialty crops that fetch high praise and high prices from chefs and farmers’ market aficionados.

Lynne Byczynski, editor of Growing for Market, a trade journal for small farmers, told the Washington Post that the trend is toward small farms. “…It's about attention to detail, about getting retail pricing and having relationships with customers…this has really been happening all over the country. People are managing to make a go of it."

Republicans always seem to be accusing Democrats of wanting to go back in time (see Rick Perry’s horse-and-buggy quip in yesterday’s post). Yet it’s the Republicans who cling to outdated technologies and ideologies; they’ve steadfastly opposed raising fuel efficiency standards for cars, and who can forget Trent Lott waxing nostalgic about the pre-civil rights era?

Do any of them, other than the disgraced Mark Foley, even know how to text-message? I mean, this is the party whose leader uses “the Google” on the “Internets,” which we know now, thanks to Senator Ted Stevens, Chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, is not “a big truck,” but rather “a series of tubes.”

These doughy dullards are not on the cutting edge of anything. If you want real progress, vote for a progressive. If you’re into the more medieval stuff, like torture, serfdom, and blood-sucking leeches, stick with the GOP. Do you want to live in the Dark Ages, or have you seen the light? Have you had enough?

GOP = GRAND OLD POLLUTERS

A leading conservative recently spoke out about the need to address global warming:

There is a price for progress in tackling climate change. Yes of course low-energy lightbulbs, hybrid cars - even a windmill on your roof…can make a difference and also save money. But these things are not enough. Government must show leadership by setting the right framework. Binding targets for carbon reduction, year on year. That would create a price for carbon in our economy. What does that mean? It means that things which produce more carbon will get more expensive. Going green is not some fashionable, pain-free option. It will place a responsibility on business. It will place a responsibility on all of us. That is the point. Tackling climate change is our social responsibility - to the next generation.

Great! A conservative who’s on the right side of this issue. Too bad he’s on the wrong side of the Atlantic; the carbon-conscious conservative is David Cameron, leader of Britain’s Tory Party.

Here at home, we’ve got Texas governor Rick Perry fast-tracking 16 new coal plants, and they’re not the new “clean coal” kind, either; these conventional “dirty” coal plants would emit “the equivalent of 19 million automobiles' worth of carbon dioxide every year,” according to a recent NPR report.

Texas is already the No. 1 producer of greenhouse gases in the U.S., and ranks seventh worldwide, ahead of Canada or the U.K. Adding another 16 old-school style coal plants would totally undermine efforts to reduce greenhouse gases elsewhere in the U.S., as Grist’s David Roberts noted:

The national media needs to start paying attention to this. Sixteen new coal-fired plants represent a huge blow to any national effort to reduce emissions -- it matters a hell of a lot more than Al Gore's carbon offsets or Wal-Mart's truck fleet.

Governor Perry defended his decision in an op-ed for the Dallas Morning News entitled “Why Did I Cut the Red Tape?

As governor, I must find a balance between our economic and energy needs and our environmental standards…we can’t bury our head in the sand when it comes to building additional energy capacity and take the same attitude that some cities took toward building highways in the last 25 years, which was, "If we don't build it, they won't come." They came anyway, and traffic is a mess, and so will our electric grid be, if we don't build additional generation capacity.

And I, for one, don't want to tell Texans to ration air conditioning any more than I want to tell them they can drive only certain days of the week…

…There is great debate in the scientific community about whether we are experiencing man-made global warming. I am not a scientist, but this I will say: I will not impose stricter sanctions on carbon dioxide emissions when the federal government does not even recognize it as a pollutant and when setting standards that are more punitive than almost every other state and nation would cause economic ruin for the people of Texas…

… The fact is that there is an extreme element of the environmental community that opposes additional energy capacity no matter what…

…I would argue that they want to return us to the era of horse and buggy – except they would probably complain about the methane gas from horse manure, too.

And I would argue that Governor Perry wants to return us to the era of Charles Dickens’ London, when a fine layer of coal dust coating everything was a fact of life.

But you don’t have to travel back in time to see a town choked by soot: in the Appalachians, where coal is king, children who attend an elementary school in the shadow of a coal silo breath in coal dust all day and have asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory illnesses to show for it. When the kids played barefoot on the school field, one mother noted, their feet were entirely black, “just like they’d run through coal.”

Governor Perry wouldn’t dream of asking Texans to conserve, but he has no problem asking them to accept an additional 117 million tons of carbon dioxide being spewed into the air to keep all those air conditioners running.

The utility company behind 11 of the coal plants, TXU, employed 52 lobbyists at a cost of $3 million last year in an effort to expedite the plants. And Earle Nye, TXU’s retired chairman, gave Perry $148,000.

Clearly, it was money well spent, because Perry’s moving full steam ahead to get the plants approved. He argues that “our future is at stake.” And so it is.