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CARGILL'S FAUX FAMILY FARM PORK

Well, I guess it was inevitable. First, Big Food muscled in on the organic market. Now we find out that they’re working on co-opting the “local” label, too.

Bonnie Azab Powell, co-founder of the brilliantly named, delightfully written food blog, Ethicurean.com (motto: “Chew the right thing!”), recently dined at a San Francisco restaurant that prides itself on serving local, sustainable food. Her husband ordered the pork chop, which came from a place called White Marble Farms.

Out of curiosity, Powell did a little sleuthing. She described the result in the San Francisco Chronicle:

What I discovered surprised me. White Marble Farms is a brand of Sysco, North America's largest food services distributor. The pork comes from Cargill Meat Solutions, America's second-largest meat processor.

It is bred to ensure tender meat marbled with just enough flavor-boosting fat. But these pigs never see a pasture. They're raised indoors in confinement barns, just the way most commercial pork is produced, except in smaller numbers. Aside from genetics, they're conventional pigs wearing a lip gloss of sustainability.

The chef had been snookered by a Sysco sales rep that told him the pork was “all natural” and came from hogs raised and slaughtered humanely by family farmers in Iowa. But Cargill, which provides the piglets, would not identify the Iowa farmers who raise them, and admitted that the hogs are confined indoors and fed pig by-products, despite Sysco’s claim that their hogs are fed an “all vegetable diet.”

This incident points up just how complicated it is even for food industry professionals to distinguish the truly sustainable sources from faux family farms brought to you by agribusiness.

Chef Ric Orlando has been promoting “clean food”--i.e. sustainable, free range, local or organic--for years on his PBS show Ric Orlando’s TV Kitchen and at his restaurant New World Home Cooking in upstate New York. Orlando offers his take on the “Sustainable-Organic-Local Food Issue” in his excellent new blog We Want Clean Food!!!:

… Folks, let me tell you that as a chef the simple notion of buying clean food is frighteningly complex! The complexity has increased tenfold over the last five years…

…We chefs are approached by waves of salespeople---some innocent though ignorant and some bordering on diabolical---with hundreds of "Money Saving" or "Value Added" items. When the name of the game is survival, many restaurant operators are blinded by the initial price of the food they purchase.

That appears to be the case for the San Francisco chef who bought the White Marble Farms pork: “…the rep said if I put 'White Marble Farms' on the menu, he'd give me an even better price," the chef told Powell.

And the fact is that if Powell hadn’t taken the initiative to dig up the dirt and connect the dots between White Marble Farms, Sysco, and Cargill, unsuspecting diners would still be ordering a White Marble Farms pork chop thinking that they’re supporting the small family farmer, not Big Food.

Powell’s not the only food blogger who picked up on Sysco’s scam. On the website for The Linkery, a San Diego restaurant whose goal is to serve healthy, sustainable, affordable food, a blogger named Jay elaborates on his own White Marble Farms pork chop experience in a post entitled “Would you like to visit White Marble Farms?”

Here’s the thing: the pork chop was fantastic. Great body and depth of flavor, super tender and just the right amount of flaky. I have no doubt that somewhere, some farmer on some piece of land is taking great pride in the pigs he raises.

But Sysco isn’t interested in letting you know who it is.

Sysco’s existence depends on detaching you, the eater, from the producer of your foods. Once you start asking questions about where your food comes from and how its treated and processed, the bulk of their business will be of little interest to you.

When Sysco finds that “there is a growing demand for quality pork” they enhance their supply chain to add such products, and then brand them with a new Sysco label, in this case, “White Marble Farms.”

Beware the Trojan Pork. We can’t afford to let the meaning of “local” get perverted by Big Food.

A WOOLLY GOOD TIME

 

 

The New York State Sheep and Wool Festival is one of my favorite fall events in the Hudson River Valley. A celebration of all things sheepish, it’s a showplace for rare heirloom breeds of sheep as well as llamas, alpacas, angora goats and rabbits, and sheep herding dogs whose talents extend to Frisbee-catching.

A mecca for weavers, spinners, knitters and hookers, the festival promotes a niche in American agriculture that appears to be thriving thanks to thousands of artisans and the farmers who are dedicated to preserving and promoting livestock that produce the finest fleeces.

There are miles of gorgeous yarns of every texture and color, and an overwhelming selection of hand-knit and woven hats, gloves, scarves, blankets, and any kind of woolly accessory you could imagine (and some you couldn’t.) There are schlocky crafts and some genuine folk art, too, from hooked rugs to quirky creatures made from felt.

The festival offers the obligatory demonstrations of sheep-shearing, spinning wheels, and border collies, as well as a “punkin’ chunkin’ contest,” a competition between students of engineering and physics who design “medieval-style catapults, trebuchets and ballistas to launch pumpkins at specific targets for points.”

The contest was once based on distance, but the students got so good at propelling their pumpkins that the contest’s goal now is accuracy. Will this advancement squash all those rumors that our students are falling behind in science?

We fell in love with the miniature sheep, a centuries-old English breed named Southdown, now marketed as “Olde English Babydoll Southdown Miniature Sheep.” The Southdown was famous for its extreme hardiness and “a carcass with tenderness and flavor unmatched by any other breed,” but its small size nearly doomed it to extinction after World War II when consumer demand for larger cuts of meat forced breeders to produce bigger sheep.

Small flocks of Southdowns were rediscovered sometime around 1990, and breeders dedicated to preserving heritage species now market the Babydoll Southdowns for their fleece, or as four-legged lawn mowers. Their teddy bear-like faces and compact size literally save their hides, because they are apparently too cute to eat, despite their reputedly fine flavor.

Many lambs are not so lucky, as evidenced by the lines at the lamb burger stand. We had lamb burgers and lamb ravioli for lunch, and after trying on silly sheepskin hats that dwarfed our heads in an Afro-esque explosion of wooliness, we accomplished our primary mission: to buy more woolly mice for our cat.

The woolly mice are so well made that after three years of abuse the last one we bought is only just starting to show signs of wear and tear. They are handwoven, with felt ears and a fluffy chenille tail, and stuffed with freshly harvested homegrown catnip. All this for only $6.50! American craftsmanship at its finest.

 

WEEKEND GARDEN BLOGGING

This fiery shrub is one of three hazelbert trees we planted in our front yard. The hazelbert is a transatlantic tree, bred to offer the best traits of the American hazelnut and European Filbert. It grows just 8 to 12 feet tall, so it fits nicely into even the smallest garden (i.e., ours) and yet manages to produce an abundance of tasty nuts.

Our hazelberts, planted three years ago, yielded a bumper crop this year. Sadly, most of the nuts were squirreled away by bushy-tailed thieves who beat us to the harvest.

We’ll have to take solace in the hazelbert’s other fine attributes: catkins in the winter and spring, stunning foliage in the fall. I was inspired to plant them by The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping, Rosalind Creasy’s classic guide and still one of the best books on the subject. Read it and reap!

STEWART STICKS IT TO AMERICAN INGENUITY

Jon Stewart opened his show last night with the following:

Now, I hear people say on the street, America’s on the decline…we are a nation past our prime, heading downwards. It’s not so, people, we’re as inventive as we’ve always been, and I’ll tell you how I know that…”

(takes out a box of Jimmy Dean’s new Pancakes & Sausage on a Stick, with Chocolate Chips)

“The Jimmy Dean Pancakes & Sausage on a stick! On a stick! Finally, the classic taste of chocolate chip pancake-wrapped sausage with the convenience of a stick…

…America, continuing to push the envelope of what can technically be defined as food. Are you listening, Al Qaeda? You can’t take us down as fast as these will!

The SpokesmanReview.com submitted the Jimmy Dean Pancakes & Sausage on a Stick to its food panel for review and published the results under the headline “Breakfast on a stick imaginative idea.” Sample quotes:

“Any meat on a stick is a good thing.”

“Great idea. A little too dry for me, but dipped in syrup makes it OK.”

“It looks like a corn dog with a disease! This is a horrible idea.”

On the Parenting Weblog, a mother filed this post under the category “Fun for the kids”:

I always make sure that my son eats breakfast before he goes to school. My growing boy needs his energy boost early in the morning so he can focus and be active while in school.

Of course, it is best to serve a nutritious meal for breakfast. From time to time, however, I do spoil him and let him have something which others may disapprove of.

And today, I saw yet another product which I could add to my list of "spoil my son" breakfast food... Pancakes and Sausage on a Stick - Chocolate Chip Flavor!

Looks a lot like a big calorie bomb.

A chocolate chip pancake-wrapped weapon of mass destruction, if you will. Why bother to bomb us? We're doing such a good job of blowing ourselves up.

WHAT WOULD JESUS CLONE?

The FDA’s about to approve the sale of meat and milk from cloned livestock, raising ethical questions and causing all kinds of consternation among religious and consumer groups, as well as animal rights activists.

“These are animals. They’re not just economic units…they’re not just machines,” Michael Appleby of the World Society for the Protection of Animals told the Washington Post.

Farming practices have increasingly relied on biotechnology in recent years. One of my favorite examples is the artificial insemination of turkeys, which are now bred to be so large-breasted that it’s physically impossible for them to simply mate the old-fashioned way. Evidently turkeys have less to be thankful for than ever.

Artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization and embryonic manipulation are widely accepted agricultural practices. But cloning and genetic engineering may not be greeted with such enthusiasm.

“If people become comfortable with these technologies, then human cloning is inevitable,” according to E.J. Woodhouse, a political science professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Center for Ethics in Complex Systems in Troy, N.Y.

Religious groups are perplexed by these new developments. Many Christian leaders reportedly view cloning as a sin.

"New questions have required the development of new theologies," said Harold Coward, director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria, B.C.

The Bible wouldn’t seem to offer a lot of guidance on such matters. Then again, how did Jesus manage to turn water into wine, if not through the miracle of genetic engineering? And what was up with those five loaves and two fishes with which he somehow fed five thousand people? Sure sounds like cloning. I remain utterly agnostic about this stuff, myself.

CONSTITUTIONAL COUCH POTATOES

“With the distance of history, the questions will be narrowed, and few; did this generation of Americans take the threat seriously, and did we do what it takes to defeat that threat?”

Oh, the irony. That was President Bush, yesterday, upon signing the Military Commissions Act of 2006. In case you weren’t paying attention, and it would appear from the collective yawn that greeted this act that most of us weren’t, this piece of legislation pretty much signals the end of our democracy as we’ve known it.

Russ Feingold said “We will look back on this day as a stain on our nation’s history.”

Jonathan Turley, professor of constitutional law at George Washington University, told Keith Olbermann last night:

People have no idea how significant this is, really, what a time of shame this is for the American system. What the Congress did, and what the President signed today, essentially revokes over two hundred years of American principles and values. It couldn’t be more significant, and the strange thing is we’ve become sort of constitutional couch potatoes, I mean, the Congress just gave the President despotic powers and you could hear the yawn across the country as people turned to, you know, Dancing With the Stars. I mean, it, it’s, it’s other-worldly…

…this is going to go down in history as one of our greatest self-inflicted wounds, and I think you can feel the judgment of history. It won’t be kind to President Bush, but, frankly, I don’t think it will be kind to the rest of us. I think that history will ask, “Where were you? What did you do when this thing was signed into law?”

There were people that protested the Japanese concentration camps, there were people that protested these other acts, but we are strangely silent in this national yawn as our rights evaporate.

A nation of sheep sleeps while democracy gets slaughtered.

HOW THE WORLD EATS—OR DOESN’T

Did you know that yesterday was World Food Day ? Yeah, me neither. I heard a sound bite about it on NPR, but it didn’t get a whole lot of press in the U.S. We’re too busy fighting the “diabesity” epidemic to give much thought to the War on Hunger. But these problems have something in common, a phenomenon called “the nutrition transition.”

Nutrition transition is what happens when a country’s population goes from not having enough food to overeating. I’d never heard this phrase till I came across it in Marion Nestle’s forward to an extraordinary book called Hungry Planet: What the World Eats. The book is a collaboration by writer Faith D’Aluisio and photographer Peter Menzel, the husband and wife team whose previous projects include Material World: A Global Family Portrait.

In Material World, D’Aluisio and Menzel provided a portrait of “statistically average” families from thirty nations, photographed with all of their material possessions.

Hungry Planet provides a similar snapshot of how people all over the world feed their families. The images are fascinating, gorgeous and sometimes grim; the text includes essays by Michael Pollan, Carl Safina, and other champions of a more sane and humane food chain. This book is the single most effective visual aid I have ever seen for illustrating the problems with our food system that plague both the developing world and industrialized nations.

Why does a child die of hunger roughly every five seconds, in this world? In short, it’s the distribution, stupid. The greatest challenge we face when it comes to how to feed the world is not how to grow enough food; in a world of about 6 1/2 billion people, we have a surplus, enough food to feed a population nearly double that number.

Famine is caused by a fatal combination of human folly and natural calamities: war, corruption, catastrophes. The United Nations created World Food Day in 1979 to draw attention to the pervasive problem of world hunger; the date of October 16th was chosen to commemorate the day the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization was founded in 1945.

The theme for this year’s World Food Day is “Investing in agriculture for food security.” What do they mean by “food security”? Here’s the FAO’s definition:

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

Note the inclusion of the word “nutritious.” We live in an era where it’s possible to be obese and yet malnourished, thanks to the proliferation of calorie dense, nutritionally bankrupt processed foods.

Hungry Planet exposes the culinary chasm between our fatty meat-marbled Western diet and the grain, legume and vegetable-based meals on which much of the world subsists. At either end of this extreme lies malnourishment, from famished refugees in Chad to a family of obese, diabetic Australians with a fondness for saturated fats.

How to achieve a happy medium? The single greatest solution to both these sad scenarios would be to encourage sustainable, local agriculture all over the world. If we could give the people in poorer nations the means to grow their own food, and persuade people in more affluent nations to shake off the shackles of our industrialized food chain and learn to appreciate food that hasn’t been pumped full of artificial flavors and a thousand corn-based by-products, we could lay the foundations for worldwide food security.

Small-scale farmers are the cornerstone, according to the FAO. But where does that leave the global agribusiness giants? DuPont and Monsanto have spent a fortune trying to spread their genetically modified seeds all over the developing world in the name of fighting famine.

Are they really out to eliminate world hunger, or are they hungry to eliminate competition over control of the world’s food supply? See for yourself; watch an excerpt from Deborah Koons Garcia’s documentary about GMO’s, The Future of Food, offered online by The Media That Matters Good Food Festival, or watch the entire film above. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t drink the Kool-Aid from the folks who brought us Agent Orange.

THE FEEDLOTS, THE FECAL MATTER, & THE FEDS: AXIS OF EVIL?

Cow manure, like religion, can be a force for good or evil. It makes things fruit and flower, but it also spreads toxic contaminants. Terribly confusing to the average American consumer with a limited understanding of agricultural practices, no doubt, but that’s why we love Michael Pollan, who plows through the poop to get to the root of the problem; industrial farming practices have turned a formerly harmless fertilizer into a source of pollution and disease:

Wendell Berry once wrote that when we took animals off farms and put them onto feedlots, we had, in effect, taken an old solution — the one where crops feed animals and animals’ waste feeds crops — and neatly divided it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm, and a pollution problem on the feedlot. Rather than return to that elegant solution, however, industrial agriculture came up with a technological fix for the first problem — chemical fertilizers on the farm. As yet, there is no good fix for the second problem, unless you count irradiation and Haccp plans and overcooking your burgers and, now, staying away from spinach. All of these solutions treat E. coli 0157:H7 as an unavoidable fact of life rather than what it is: a fact of industrial agriculture.

The Haccp plan Pollan refers to is the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system, which the government developed to deal with E. coli contamination in beef. Cattle feces were tainting our hamburgers, but rather than trying to keep the manure out of the meat, the industry opted to, well, sterilize the shit out of it.

Pollan predicts that our industrial food chain’s reliance on such technological “solutions” means that we’ll be hearing calls to irradiate the entire food supply any day now. Did he know that in the business section of Sunday’s NY Times, on the same day that his piece ran in the Times’ magazine, Danial Akst wrote a column entitled “Big Farms Will Keep Spinach on the Table?” Akst defends the practice of irradiating food as a life-saving technology that’s been stymied by “public fears of anything sounding too nuclear.”

Akst states that “Someday irradiated food will be commonplace, and thousands of lives will be saved because of it. Someday, too, I expect that tasty meats will be grown in vats rather than taken from the carcasses of dead animals. These developments will be humane, earth-friendly — and brought to you by big agriculture, hopefully with big government keeping a watchful eye.”

Yeah, hopefully. Because, you know, it’s Agribusiness’s job to make a profit, not to protect our health and safety; that’s up to the FDA and the USDA. They’re looking out for us, except when Big Food lobbyists pay them to look the other way. To the highest bidder go the spoils; to the loser, the spoiled meat. Or spinach.

WEEKEND GARDEN BLOGGING

Q. Why did the zucchini cross the road?

A. Because it couldn’t stop growing.

This heirloom zucchini vine has escaped from our garden, grown through the front fence and seems more likely to become roadkill than ratatouille.

THIS IS YOUR GOVERNMENT ON DRUGS

The War on Drugs has a lot in common with the War on Terror: it’s ill-conceived, badly executed, and totally counterproductive.

And both wars have had some disastrous agricultural consequences, at home and abroad.

Under the Taliban, poppy crops were illegal. This year’s poppy crop in Afghanistan is 59% higher than last year’s; it’s estimated that this will enable Afghanistan to meet 130% of the world’s demand for heroin.

According to Anne Brodsky, author of With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, when we toppled the Taliban, the seeds for a bumper crop of poppies were sown:

The one thing the Taliban did, you have to say, is they kept control. With them gone there was no one keeping control and anyone could do anything and that's where the beginning of the rise of the poppy crops came from. The other thing that was happening was that there had been a 4-5 year drought and poppies are quite drought resistance so it became a sort of quick thing that you could put in and it would grow in very degraded soil without a lot of water and so, farmers said to themselves, I know this isn't right, this isn't the crop I want to grow, but what do I do, my family will starve. Now what we're starting to hear alot more is that farmers are saying, they’re forcing me to do it, I don't have a choice. Someone is coming with a gun and telling me what to do with my land.

And who reaps the poppy profits? “That money doesn't go to the farmers, the farmers are estimated to get about 10% of that,“ Brodsky says. “The money's going to warlords, the Taliban, the drug dealers, and the criminals.”

Hugo Chavez got tons of press at the United Nations last month when he held up a copy of a Noam Chomsky book, but hardly anyone took notice when President Evo Morales of Bolivia waved a coca leaf and challenged U.S. drug policies in Bolivia.

Hardly anyone, that is, except John Tierney, who wrote a semi-seditious column seconding Morales’ pro-coca sentiments. Tierney quotes Morales, a former coca grower himself:

"It has been demonstrated that the coca leaf does no harm to human health," he said, a statement that's much closer to the truth than Washington's take on these leaves. The white powder sold on the streets of America is dangerous because it's such a concentrated form of cocaine, but just about any substance can be perilous at a high enough dose.

South Americans routinely drink coca tea and chew coca leaves. The tiny amount of cocaine in the leaves is a mild stimulant and appetite suppressant that isn't more frightening than coffee or colas -- in fact, it might be less addictive than caffeine, and on balance it might even be good for you. When the World Health Organization asked scientists to investigate coca in the 1990's, they said it didn't seem to cause health problems and might yield health benefits.

But American officials fought against the publication of the report and against the loosening of restrictions on coca products, just as they've resisted proposals to let Afghan farmers sell opium to pharmaceutical companies instead of to narco-traffickers allied with the Taliban. The American policy is to keep attacking the crops, even if that impoverishes peasants -- or, more typically, turns them into criminals.

Our efforts to eradicate coca crops in South America have been an utter failure. Coca remains Colombia’s no. 1 cash crop despite our having spent $4 billion dollars to battle it, by, among other things, encouraging farmers to grow other crops.

In Peru, the world’s no. 2 producer of coca, we’ve spent some $330 million to fight coca growing. The result? Peru’s coca output jumped nearly 40% last year.

Our attempts to convince Peruvian farmers to stop growing coca have, however, accomplished one thing: they’ve succeeded in nearly wiping out American asparagus farmers.

Yes, that’s right, thanks to our idiotic drug policies, farmers who’ve been growing asparagus for generations in Michigan can’t compete with asparagus from Peru, where workers are paid $2 a day, compared to the $800 a week Michigan farmers pay their workers.

I learned this astonishing, appalling fact from ASPARAGUS!, a “stalk-umentary“ by Anne de Mare & Kirsten Kelly which paints a loving portrait of a proud, hard-working community of farmers watching their livelihood get plowed under as cheap Peruvian asparagus subsidized by the U.S. floods the American market.

The film is fascinating, funny and infuriating; I wish everybody could see it, and if you’re in NYC this weekend, you can—it’s playing at the Museum of Television & Radio’s DOCFEST, this Saturday, October 14th @ 1:30 p.m. (25 West 52nd Street, between 5th & 6th Avenues.) And please note that if you get your tickets in advance at mtr.org and use the special promotional codes “mtrdocs” or “Americana,” you can get discounted tickets - so bring your friends!

Watch the ASPARAGUS! trailer at the top of this post, and be amazed at the resilience of the American asparagus farmers, and the brain-dead policies of our government (the trailer is also included in the Media That Matters Good Food Film Festival, which offers a collection of shorts on food and sustainability that you can view online; more on this wonderful festival coming soon!)