Eating Liberally

Eating Liberally Blog

Farmers + Fashionistas = Sex and the Country?

My style is more Birkenstock than Birkin bag, so Fashion Week doesn't do much for me. You know the Shopocalypse has arrived when designers go dumpster diving for shoulder pads in the Dynasty/Dallas dustbin. Padded assets in this Grapes of Graft depression? Dust Bowl duds, à la the Waltons, would be more fitting for the hard times ahead.

But the John Patrick Organic fashion show managed to bypass both eighties excess and seventies scarcity and find fertile ground in "Green Acres," the sixties spoof starring Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor as neophyte homesteaders. I knew this wouldn't be a run-of-the-mill runway show because (a) it featured a "young farmer bake sale," and (b) the invite came from Greenhorns director Severine Von Tscharner Fleming.

Von Tscharner Fleming--oh, heck, let's just call her Severine, life's too short--is the pastoral pied piper who's luring America's youth back to the land with her Serve Your Country Food campaign and the Greenhorns Guide For Beginning Farmers. The guide, available as a free download, is a marvelous mash-up of "permaculture, Ben Franklin, your farming grandparents, Van Jones, Robert Rodale, Wendell Berry, Chip Planck, Gandhi, Will Allen and the Nearings," as the Rodale Institute raved, "re-mixed as an agro-ecological cultural renaissance wrapped in a cool buzz."

Severine organized the bake sale to whet the stylish set's appetite for tasty local food. Patrick's goal is to be the "Johnny Appleseed" of the fashion industry, spreading the seedlings of sustainable style by using materials such as organic cotton, recycled textiles and vegan leather in his clothing lines for men and women. So Patrick generously agreed to share the spotlight with a few enterprising young agrarians that Severine enlisted in her campaign to swell the ranks of treehugging trendsetters.

Models posed center stage in Patrick's refreshingly simple, elegant designs; off to the side, folks sampled fresh-from-the farm goodies made from free range eggs and grass-fed dairy while chatting with the people who made them. Now that those Skinny Bitches have raised awareness in the fashion biz about the horrors of our industrialized food chain, it's the perfect time for Severine and her crew to drum up the demand for locally grown foods that we need to breed if small scale farming is going to be seen as a viable vocation by the millions of young people it will take to remake our food chain.

Admittedly, the cookies and cheeses on offer didn't include any vegan options, so there was no instant gratification for the Skinny Bitch contingent. But for devotees of a plant-based diet, there was something far more thrilling on display: locally grown heirloom vegetable seeds from The Hudson Valley Seed Library, a "homestead- based farm and business in upstate New York" whose goal is to offer urban, suburban, and rural home gardeners "high-quality seeds of heirloom and open-pollinated varieties rooted in the history and soils of the Northeast."

To appreciate how truly rare and wonderful a find the Seed Library is, it helps to know a bit about the seed business, which--like pretty much every other sector in the U.S.--has been largely hijacked by a few corporations who've gobbled up the smaller seed companies and now control a frightening percentage of the seeds we need to feed us. It's almost impossible to exaggerate how scary this is, because they're not just shoving their genetically modified seeds down the world's collective throat, they're actively working to stop small family farmers from engaging in the centuries-old practice of saving seeds from one season to the next to preserve rare, non-hybridized varieties--in case you wanted to have the choice to just say "bleech!" to bio-tech foods.

Ken Greene and Doug Muller, the (bio)dynamic duo who founded the Seed Library, are creating an invaluable resource for those of us in the northeast who are game to start growing even just a little of our own food. Their long-term goal is to provide "an accessible and affordable source of locally-adapted seeds that is maintained by a community of caring gardeners." They've been hard at work for several years laying the foundation for this brilliant enterprise, which began as a seed-lending project at an upstate library. When you become a member, your $20 fee gets you ten packs of seeds--a real bargain for these rare, hand-picked varieties--and starts you on your way to actively helping to revitalize our local food chain. As the handout at the fashion show explained:

Anyone can buy seeds from our catalog, which is available on our website. However, those who chose to become members of the Hudson Valley Seed Library receive a great deal--and become involved in a community of regional seed-savers...Under the current program, members can select ten packs of seeds from the catalog (and additional packs at discounted rates), grow them in their home gardens, enjoy the flowers and eat some veggies, and, if they so choose, save seed from the plants to return to the library. For each variety successfully saved and returned, members receive credit toward their next year's membership. This cooperative process creates a source of seeds grown in and adapted to our region.

Muller adds:

"Growing these seeds in your home garden and learning how to save seeds is a way for all of us to participate in the ceaseless renewal of life--and to practice frugality, develop regional food security, and enjoy being active and outside more often."

Kudos to Severine and John Patrick for bringing a bit of Green Acres to Gotham. As Muller blogged on the Seed Library website the day after the show, "With all the pouty-lipped models and international paparazzi, it was definitely not our usual scene. But it was great to be there."

So much of the fashion industry seems geared towards soul-deadening conformity to an unhealthy norm--not to mention planet-polluting consumption. No wonder the New York Post found John Patrick and Severine's organic fashion show/young farmer bake sale "a much-needed breath of fresh, eco-friendly air."

Patrick gets brownie points, too, for donating remnants of the organic cotton left over from his clothing production to the worthy non-profit Made With Love, which was also present at the fashion show displaying the stuffed animals made from that cotton. Sales of the toys raise funds for NGOs dedicated to helping women and children in need in Africa, Brazil and Haiti.

Fashion may seem frivolous, but we all need to wear something, just as we all need to eat. And it's official now--there's a Slow Clothing movement, à la Slow Food, which celebrates things that some of us have been doing for decades: everything from foraging for second-hand finds at thrift shops and flea markets to making your own clothes from scratch or repurposing items. The movement also includes high-end, sustainably produced textiles and fashions from artisans and designers like John Patrick.

My favorite piece of fashion advice comes from Mrs. No Impact Man, aka Michelle Conlin, the former fashionista-turned-frugalista who offered me this gem: "Go shopping in your own closet." How many of us haven't got tons of stuff we never even wear or have forgotten about entirely? Will I ever have an occasion to wear that pair of Chanel overalls I impulsively bought on sale at Filene's just because I couldn't resist the absurdity?

I used to watch Sex and the City because it was funny, well-written, and--unlike so many supposedly NYC-based shows--actually filmed here. But I could never relate to the passion for fashion that infused the whole show. The closest I could come was to imagine that Carrie Bradshaw and her glamorous girlfriends got the same thrill from shopping for shoes and handbags that I get from trolling the Greenmarket seeking out rare fruits and veggies.

I may be the only woman in the West Village who's more excited by burdock roots than Blahnik boots, but, thanks to Severine and her growing horde of horticultural hipsters, there's hope that someday I'll have plenty of company. Can't wait to wear my Chanel overalls to the premiere of The Greenhorns, or No Impact Man--or both.

The Politician Who's Ready to Reclaim Our Food Chain NOW

President Obama's got an awful lot on his plate. Sadly, it's all lousy leftovers from the previous administration: rotten bailouts, curdled wars, moldy policies. Is there any room for grass-fed, grassroots-led reform?

The eat-better-brigade's hoping our new Commander in Chief will be "the prize delivery guy...delivering fresh, steaming change in 30 minutes or less" as Raj Patel put it in a speech last Friday at the Farming For The Future conference in Pennsylvania. Patel bemoaned the monocrop monarchy that rules from our school cafeterias to our diners and dining rooms. He ended with the rousing declaration that we are "not consumers of democracy, we are its proprietors."

Who's minding the store, though? Will Obama even attempt to emancipate eaters from the military industrial complex cabal that helped Big Ag give small farms the boot? Our government's policies have played a scandalously large role in exiling wholesome, unprocessed, uncontaminated foods to the fringes of our culture.

But we don't need to wait for deliverance from DC when NYC's got a powerful advocate for fresh, healthy, locally grown foods who's ready to lead the way today. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer held a press conference last Saturday at Manhattan's Union Square Greenmarket to announce the release of Food In The Public Interest: How New York City's Food Policy Holds the Key to Hunger, Health, Jobs and the Environment , a comprehensive report on how to strengthen our local foodshed by establishing "food enterprise zones" and other incentives to improve access to fresh, healthy, locally grown foods in every neighborhood. Stringer's also a big fan of urban agriculture, eager to help NYC residents curb their carbon "foodprint" by helping folks grow more of their own food in community gardens, backyards and on rooftops. The report, produced with the help of Stringer's dedicated, able staff and input from food policy experts and activists of all stripes (like myself), grew out of a forum he co-hosted with Columbia University last November on The Politics of Food.

Stringer's calling for a "radical overhaul" of the disastrous food policies that are plunging us into a future of lower life expectancy and higher sea levels. And he's looking beyond his own borough, hoping to set a precedent for communities all over the country. The Politics of Food conference was the first step in Stringer's plan to "begin the urgent work of creating a...practical and innovative food policy for New York that puts our great city at the front of this debate where it belongs."

NYC is, after all, the birthplace of J. I. Rodale, America's foremost proponent of sustainable agriculture. That's right, the founder of Organic Gardening magazine (originally called Organic Farming and Gardening when it launched in 1942,) grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Rodale "believed that modern agricultural techniques and American eating habits left quite a bit to be desired," so, in 1950, he launched another periodical, Prevention, to promote a healthier diet and combat the food-induced illnesses that plague us. He died in 1971--rather inconveniently, during a taping of the Dick Cavett show, where he had a heart attack--so we can only imagine what he would make of the extent to which our diet has deteriorated in recent decades.

No doubt Rodale would have applauded Mayor Bloomberg for taking on tobacco and trans fats. But he would have been baffled by Bloomberg's much vaunted sustainability initiative, PlaNYC, which fails to consider any aspect of our food chain in its goal of greening New York and ensuring a better quality of life for NYC's residents in the decades to come.

This egregious oversight of the impact that food production has on our environment is a sin committed not only by Bloomberg but also by the otherwise visionary Van Jones and Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Thomas Friedman, who both lobby tirelessly for a green collar economy but have yet to realize that growing healthy food is the ultimate green collar job, whether you're doing it on pavement or pasture. As Michael Pollan wrote in his open letter to President Obama advocating the "resolarization" of our food chain:

...we need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine.

...We need more highly skilled small farmers in more places all across America -- not as a matter of nostalgia for the agrarian past but as a matter of national security.

...The revival of farming in America, which of course draws on the abiding cultural power of our agrarian heritage, will pay many political and economic dividends. It will lead to robust economic renewal in the countryside. And it will generate tens of millions of new "green jobs," which is precisely how we need to begin thinking of skilled solar farming: as a vital sector of the 21st-century post-fossil-fuel economy...

But while Obama and his Secretary of Ag, Tom Vilsack, have given lip service to the merits of Michael Pollan's proposals, our bold borough president has been busy actively working to implement them, heeding Pollan's call to reregionalize our food system and rebuild America's food culture. Stringer has even signed on to the politically risky aspect of Pollan's "sun food agenda" that addresses those inconvenient truths about the corporate-sponsored corpulence and petro-fueled pollution that plague our nation. As Pollan notes:

Our agenda puts the interests of America's farmers, families and communities ahead of the fast-food industry's. For that industry and its apologists to imply that it is somehow more "populist" or egalitarian to hand our food dollars to Burger King or General Mills than to support a struggling local farmer is absurd.

Stringer echoed this sentiment on Saturday:

For too long, decisions about our food supply have been made by private parties or by the federal government...We talk more about food desserts in this city than we talk about food deserts, where 750,000 New Yorkers do not have access to healthy food...that must change. We also have a policy in this city of giving tax incentives to Burger King, McDonald's, and fast food operators rather than give tax abatements to people who want to get us the lettuce and the tomato without the burger. And that, to me, is food injustice. That must change.

...We've got to bring food closer to home...we must establish a state of the art is time to tag enterprise zones to guarantee that the healthy food supply will come to all neighborhoods, not just the wealthy ones.

...we're talking about investing in green jobs to deal with food production, but it has to not just be about the President telling the states that it will eventually trickle down to the cities. We have got to look at new development and our economic infrastructure and figure out how we can incentivize the ability to create green collar jobs.

Stringer cited the high price we'll pay if we fail to address the diet-related diseases that are crippling our communities:

...we taxpayers will have to deal with that crisis...and healthcare costs will continue to rise because we did not do the preventive work that we had to do.

...if we create the beginnings of a foodshed...if we use land use and zoning as it relates to creating supermarkets and healthy food, if we implement these recommendations, NYC will become the leader in creating a new green economy and making sure that our people have a lot of healthy opportunities in their lives.

...the Mayor's done a great job with trans fats, putting these issues on the table. But we continue to subsidize Burger King and McDonald's, we continue to fail to use the zoning laws that we have on the books to empower people to have a say in what is happening in our neighborhoods. It's time to use our rooftops, it's time to bring vegetation, vegetables, closer to home, and let's use our collective thinking.

The people behind me today, they're the experts, not me. They're the policy people, they're the advocates, they're the people on the front line. They're the ones who, now, working together, have told us very clearly that there is a role for government in this battle. This is the road map that they've given government officials--from the governor, the mayor, the borough president, the city council--this is the document, today, and people have got to understand that this is our moment, this is our opportunity.

This is indeed our opportunity, and we are so lucky to have a politician who gets it. A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Milwaukee's Growing Power, the extraordinary urban farm founded by MacArthur genius Will Allen, and saw firsthand the future of urban agriculture. With Stringer's support, I'm optimistic that NYC could adopt Allen's remarkable model for producing food and converting food waste to fertilizer.

Last week, before heading off to the Farming for the Future conference, I attended a forum at NYU where a group of sustainable ag advocates, including the marvelous Annie Myers and permaculture proponents Andrew Faust and Adam Brock, discussed their vision for transforming NYU's grounds and rooftops into productive food gardens.

And today, New York City Council Member David Yassky's holding a press conference to introduce the Sustainable Roof Act of 2009. The time is now--here's hoping that as goes New York, so goes the nation.

Weekend Upbraid

I've never been a connoisseur of cannibis--or any other drug, for that matter--but, seriously, Kellogg's decision to drop Michael Phelps on the grounds that his pot smoking sets a bad example is just pathetic. As role models go, Tony The Tiger may well be a far more insidious influence than Michael Phelps. After all, he's peddling a sugary breakfast cereal made from genetically modified corn and high fructose corn syrup--exactly the kind of junky processed convenience food that's helping to erode the life expectancy of our kids.

So three cheers to Seth Meyers for skewering Kellogg's on SNL's Weekend Update on Saturday. Watch the video and have a laugh. And then stop to ask yourself why Phelp's sponsors didn't get similarly worked up over his arrest for drunk driving back in 2004. As Bruce Mirkin noted over on Alternet, "if Phelps had been photographed hoisting a Budweiser, no one would have said a word." Isn't it high time we put an end to this double standard? And let's stop sugar-coating the toll that frosted flakes is taking on our youth, while we're at it.

The Bitter Taste of "Lemon Socialism": Let Them Eat Crap

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The "Chewable Pampers" commercial on Saturday Night Live last weekend was pretty hilarious, turning brown to green with an eco-friendly edible diaper that comes in three different flavors: "tangy cheddar, spicy lentil, and corn chowder." Gag me with a biodegradable bamboo spoon.

OK, so it was funny--but how farfetched, really? Thanks to our tanking economy, folks are eating crap en masse. Who knew that a pyramid scheme would generate its own food pyramid? Frank Rich took a peek at the ponzi'd-out pantry in his Sunday op-ed in the New York Times:

What are Americans still buying? Big Macs, Campbell’s soup, Hershey’s chocolate and Spam — the four food groups of the apocalypse.

So, we're responding to a bankrupt economy by turning to nutritionally bankrupt foods. George Will cited this phenomenon as an example of capitalism at its finest when he was on ABC's This Week last week. As Jed L noted over on Daily Kos:

George Will argues that the rising consumption of cheap fast food during the Bush Recession shows the market works, saying the boost in quarterly profits at McDonald’s is a perfect example of "the market sorting this out."

Oh, really? Given that Agribiz is a major corporate welfare queen, the resurgence of cheap convenience foods hardly constitutes a victory for free market principles. Our schizoid USDA perpetually lectures us to eat more fruits and vegetables even as its agricultural policies ensure that fresh, wholesome, unprocessed produce will continue to be a luxury item for affluent urbanites with the means to shop at farmers markets and Whole Foods. The rest of us can eat shit, to put it bluntly.

This warped Western diet is killing us on a scale that our enemies in the Middle East can only dream of. You hear a lot about diabetes and obesity these days, but a diet deficient in nutritious foods is also a major factor in nearly half of all cancers. Our fondness for salty convenience foods also leads to high blood pressure and heart attacks, which is why New York City recently launched a campaign to persuade the food industry to lower sodium levels by 50 percent over the next decade. Such a measure could save 150,000 American lives a year, according to NYC health commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden.

In the meantime, we, the people, will continue to foot the bill for this food system that's poisoning us, just as we are paying for the bungled bailout and an unjust, unnecessary war. Did I say war? Make that wars, plural. Because, in addition to the War on Terror, we're waging the catastrophically wrongheaded War on Drugs.

Our celebrity-besotted media's too busy tarnishing Olympic swim star Michael Phelps over his golden boy-with-bong photo-op to focus on the faceless fatcats who are doing infinitely more to undermine our way of life than an athlete blowing off steam--or sucking up smoke. Does it really make fiscal--or moral--sense to persecute pot smokers and squander billions to incarcerate marijuana merchants while the robber barons of Wall Street remain free to fleece us all?

What would founding father (and hemp grower) Thomas Jefferson make of the fact that we now have more prisoners than farmers? The US has the highest rate of incarceration in the western world. What a collosal waste of human capital, as well as tax payer dollars. Why not fund a program to convert all those renegade hydroponics experts to "aquaponics," the brilliant marriage of fish farming and greens growing perfected by MacArthur genius Will Allen at Milwaukee's Growing Power?

But wingnuts would rather invest in misguided, unwinnable wars than fund frivolous things like health care, education and infrastructure. You know, porky kinda stuff like healthy school lunches for our kids, say, or high speed rail, or rebates on renewable energy. Anyone remember Dubya dissing Al Gore's proposed tax credit for solar panels in the 2000 presidential debates? He could barely conceal his disdain, spitting out the word "pho-to-vol-taic" with the same scorn that "real Americans" Sarah Palin and Rudy Guiliani heaped on community organizers in our last election.

Barney Frank called out Senator Jim DeMint and his Republican colleagues on their demented priorities last Sunday on This Week when DeMint started carping about how President Obama's stimulus plan relied too heavily on spending--as opposed to those conservative cure-alls, tax cuts and a blank check for the military-industrial complex:

...And I don’t understand why, from some of my conservative friends, building a road, building a school, helping somebody get health care-- that’s wasteful spending, but that war in Iraq, which is going to cost us over $1 trillion before we’re through -- yes, I wish we hadn’t have done that. We’d have been in a lot better shape fiscally...

...That’s the problem. The problem is that we look at spending and say, “Oh, don’t spend on highways. Don’t spend on health care. But let’s build Cold War weapons to defeat the Soviet Union when we don’t need them. Let’s have hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars going to the military without a check.”

What we have here isn't really capitalism at all; it's what Paul Krugman aptly titles "lemon socialism," a form of government in which corporations and their CEOs make out like bandits on the basis of corrupt business practices while the rest of us pick up the tab for their toxic mortgages and toxic food.

Our bridges and roads are crumbling, our students are stumbling, our Wall Street wizards and the Beltway brigade are fumbling. But it's scary muslims and scummy socialists who purportedly pose the greatest threat to America, according to Rush Limbaugh, that "corpulent oxycontin aficionado" and climate change naysayer who is famously praying for our new president to fail.

In fact, it's our dependence on fast food and fossil fuels--aided and abetted by the idiotic ideology of Limbaugh and his ilk--that truly jeopardizes America's future.

FDA=Failure to Do Anything

Image: star city harbinger

"Food scares have become as common as Midwestern tornadoes," the New York Times notes in yet another article about the salmonella-tainted peanut butter scandal, which has been competing in recent days with the mercury-tainted high fructose corn syrup scandal, which may have distracted you from the bisphenol A-in-our-bodies scandal, which may soon be surpassed by the phthalates-in-our-bodies scandal...oh, nevermind.

Our chronically overworked and underfunded FDA hasn't got the means--or the inclination--to protect consumers from the monstrous machinations of that tri-headed hydra, Big Ag/Big Food/Big Pharma. As the New York Times recently reported, the FDA routinely ignores its own rules regarding the "financial conflicts of doctors who conduct clinical trials of drugs and medical devices in human subjects," because "collecting and checking this information before the trials was not worth the effort for either the companies or the agency."

Not worth the effort. Just as it evidently was not worth the effort to act on the mercury in HFCS, or to follow up after learning all the way back in April that Peanut Corp. of America was attempting to ship contaminated peanuts (hat tip to Bill Marler.) Oh, and what about the even more toxic methylmercury that our coal-fired power plants spew, which also finds its way into our food chain via fish, among other sources? "Clean coal" may or may not be an oxymoron, but in any case, it doesn't exist yet; in the meantime, as Treehugger notes, coal-fired power plants "are the largest industrial source of mercury pollution in the country."

We are being systematically poisoned thanks to a profound apathy--or, more accurately, hostility--towards regulation and oversight that extends well beyond the FDA. Robyn O'Brien, a food activist who will soon be to Monsanto what Erin Brockovich was to PG & E when Random House publishes her book The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food is Making us Sick -- And What We Can Do About It in May, noted the parallels between our current financial meltdown and our endless food safety fiascos in her HuffPo post, Duped: A Nation of Eaters.

But the collusion between Wall Street, K Street and our governmental agencies doesn't end with the FDA or the SEC. Don't forget the EPA, which has repeatedly failed to protect us as well--most recently, and drastically, in the case of the Tennessee coal fly ash catastrophe. The EPA doesn't even bother to regulate coal ash as a hazardous substance, despite plenty of evidence that it contains significant amounts of toxins. In fact, the EPA even allowed fly ash to be used to contour a golf course in Virginia, with predictable results, according to the New York Times:

In Chesapeake, Va., high levels of lead, arsenic and other contaminants were found last year in the groundwater beneath a golf course sculptured with 1.5 million tons of fly ash, the same type of coal ash involved in the Tennessee spill. The golf course opened in 2007.

The Bush administration presided over--and fostered--the wholesale abdication on the part of these agencies of their duty to protect us. President Obama is promising to "re-regulate" Wall Street, and, as the New York Times reports, vowed that "when I am president, it will not be business as usual when it comes to food safety. I will provide additional resources to hire more federal food inspectors.” He's also restoring science to its rightful place at the EPA after 8 years of the agency's being hijacked by climate change deniers and creationists.

Here's hoping that under Obama, the FDA will stand for Finally Daring to Act. Because I'm sick of writing about all these food scares, just as you all are sick of reading about them.

How Obama Cheats on Eats at Meet 'n' Greets

Given that a politician's life is an endless series of food-filled photo-ops and dinners with dignitaries, how on earth does our newly minted president stay so slender? The Washington Post's Kim O'Donnel discussed this phenomenon the other day in a terrific interview with Eddie Gehman Kohan, founder of the superb Obama Foodorama. As Kohan observed:

...the fact that he's a slim fellow who is perpetually photographed eating, and that he holds many meetings over meals, speaks to the secret fantasy that's promoted by the billion-dollar US diet industry: You *can* eat a lot, and still stay slender. That's a false assumption, but very compelling.

Well, thanks to a report on last Friday's ABC World News, we now know that Obama's secret weapon in the war on love handles is Reggie Love, an aide who follows Obama everywhere and shields him from incoming pastries and other snack attacks:

Love watches Obama's back -- and his waistline. He frequently intercepted brownies from the president while on the campaign trail.

Watch the video above to see Obama surreptitiously pass a fat bomb off to Love when no one's looking. Here's to having a president who won't pack on the pounds--or his cabinet--with Brownies, be they home-baked, or half-baked.

Let's Ask Marion: What's Your Take On The Salmonella Outbreak?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics:)

Kat: It's like deja "ew" all over again. As the salmonella-tainted peanut butter outbreak continues to spread (no pun intended), more than 125 products have been recalled, and the list grows longer everyday, including everything from dog biscuits to ice cream to energy bars. Hundreds of people have been sickened and at least six people are suspected to have died from this latest lapse in our fractured food chain.

We now know that the source of the salmonella is peanut paste from a processing plant in Georgia, owned by Peanut Corp. of America. You linked to a helpful Scientific American article the other day which explains that the contamination most likely occurred after the peanuts were roasted, since salmonella can't survive high temperatures. This would seem to implicate the factory. But the company, which sources its peanuts from both domestic and foreign farmers, buys some that are already roasted, according to the LA Times.

As the Scientific American article notes, the most likely source of salmonella is animal feces. Inspectors investigating the outbreak at the Georgia plant found a second strain of salmonella on the premises in addition to the one implicated in the illnesses. This is not reassuring. Scientific American reports that "there are some 40,000 cases of salmonella infection each year; about 600 of them are fatal." Is it too much to ask that our foods not come in to contact with bird droppings or rodent excrement or whatever other forms of fecal matter seem to be floating around in our food processing factories?

Dr. Nestle: No, it is not too much to ask. It’s not rocket science to produce safe food. All it takes is a food safety plan, one that is planned intelligently, followed diligently, and monitored carefully. Pillsbury designed a prototype for NASA to make sure that astronauts did not get food poisoning in outer space (upset stomachs and diarrhea under conditions of zero gravity? I don’t think so). They called the prototype HACCP, standing for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point with Pathogen Reduction, a mouthful.

It’s too bad that the name is so off-putting. All it means is that you look for places where contamination can occur in the production process, take steps to prevent that from happening, check to make sure the steps were followed, and test to make sure they system is working the way it is supposed to. If it works in outer space, which it definitely does, it ought to work on earth, no?

So my first take on the peanut butter situation is that the company either wasn’t following a HACCP plan, or its plan was deeply flawed, or nobody was checking. Any of these is inexcusable. What is so distressing about this situation is that it is a dead-on repeat of the pet foods recalls of 2007. I thought they were such a warning of what would happen if we didn’t fix our food safety system, that I wrote Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine to make that point.

The same thing happened with peanut butter: one company makes a generic product (or uses generic ingredients) that get shipped out and sold under dozens of brand names. The company is vague about where its ingredients come from and doesn’t always know where they go. The result is sick cats, dogs, or people in practically every state with maybe a few other countries tossed in.

And then melamine, the toxin in pet food, turned up in Chinese infant formula and made nearly 300,000 Chinese babies sick. This week, the Chinese courts dealt with two of the managers of the company that produced the melamine-tainted infant formula. It sentenced them to death. The Chinese government is taking food safety seriously.

We tend to be more casual about food safety problems, which is why we do not have a food safety system that covers all foods from farm to table. We have had plenty of warning that we need a more comprehensive system: spinach in 2006, pet food in 2007, tomatoes or peppers in 2008, and now peanut butter. How many people will it take to get sick or die before Congress requires HACCP for all foods? I just want Congress to do something about this before even more harm is done.

In the meantime, commercial jars of peanut butter are supposed to be OK, but one member of Congress (Rosa deLauro, Dem-CT) is asking the FDA to do a complete recall of all peanut butter until it can be shown to be safe. Oh well, you can always grind your own.

Slow Food For Fast People, An Interview With Amanda West

Guest Blogger Eve Fox of Garden of Eating kindly shared her interview with healthy fast food pioneer Amanda West:

Fast food is the ultimate American invention--quick, cheap meals for people on the go. But we pay a heavy price for our national addiction--an epidemic of obesity, the destruction of our fragile environment, and the loss of community ties that could be maintained by taking the time to prepare and eat food together.

Despite these negatives, the need for quick, affordable food is undeniable in today's world. But why on earth are McDonalds and its competitors our only options? Every single time I get hungry on the road, in an airport, or at a shopping mall I wish that someone would hurry up and open a healthy fast food restaurant!

Turns out the wait is finally over--Amanda's Feel Good Fresh Food restaurant opened its doors for business in Berkeley at the end of July 2008.

Amanda's Sign

The restaurant happens to be located right downstairs from my office so I was among the first to check it out (you may remember seeing my review this summer.) I'm happy to report that Amanda's is pretty much exactly what I'd been wishing for--the food is healthy (they have the nutrition guidelines to prove it, too), tasty, and affordable (a cheeseburger made with naturally raised beef and organic cheese is $4.50, baked sweet potato fries are $1.50, and a freshly made agave-sweetened soda is $1.75.)

Amanda's also goes out of its way to reduce its impact on the environment. For example, they don't sell bottled water since it creates too much landfill waste and takes a lot of petroleum to transport. Everything served in the restaurant is also fully compostable so any "trash" left over at the end of your meal can be deposited in one of the restaurant's green bins that feed directly into Amanda!Berkeley's city composting program where it will become rich soil for local farms and city landscaping projects in a matter of months. The restaurant also tries to foster a sense of community with a series of events in the restaurant and around the neighborhood. The future of fast food has never looked so green, nor so healthy!

Amanda is often behind the counter in the restaurant, filling orders alongside her team (the handwritten "Amanda" on her wooden nametag was the only thing that tipped me off.) I was curious to know more about how she'd gone about making her idea a reality and what her plans were for the future of the restaurant, so I introduced myself. She was kind enough to meet with me and answer my questions late last week.

Can U Dig It?

Finally--a president who dares to demand better of us. From our new president's inaugural speech today:

...That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet... much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

As the righteous Reverend Billy would say, "Change-a-lujah!"

Blaze A "Sun Food" Trail To The Inauguration

Electric cars and high speed rail top the wish lists of many a progressive, but for now, those lucky few who'll be hitting the road this weekend to head to DC for the inauguration must still rely on our tired old trinity of transit: trains, planes, and automobiles.

Drivers will be making pit stops all along the way to fuel up on petroleum-based products--oh, and also to get some gas. The pit stops I'm talking about are those roadside eateries where plates are piled high with a corn-ucopia of commodity crop-based crap: grain-fed factory farmed flesh deep fried in genetically modified soybean oil, with a side of fries. Top it off with a quart of high fructose corn syrup-sweetened soda and drink a toast to Big Ag!

Sure, gas is the only game in town to keep your engine running, but when it comes to recharging your own batteries, you can switch to solar power right now. How? By getting your calories from local, sustainably produced, predominantly plant-based foods instead of the meat-mad-schlepped-from-god-knows-where-fossil-fueled-fare served up at your standard diner.

Oh, yeah, like finding fresh-from-the-farm food on the road is so easy? Well, actually, it's a whole lot easier than it used to be, thanks to an online resource called the Eat Well Guide. Whether you're heading out from the heartland--or the bi-coastal "arugula belt"--the EWG's interactive mapping tool, Eat Well Everywhere, lets you print out your own ready-to-roll, customized "eat-inerary" with directions to the shops, co-ops, restaurants, farmers markets and even B & B's along your route that feature locally grown fruits, veggies, pastured animal products and all the other good stuff you can't find at conventional roadside restaurants.

The election may be over, but we still get to vote three times a day for a more humane and sustainable food chain. So all you progressive foodies who are flocking to DC to give Obama an earful on Vilsack and victory gardens, put your money where your mouth is-- fuel up on foods brought to you through the miracle of photosynthesis, and save the fossil fuels for your gas tank.