July 23, 2008

Scrapin’ Up the Bits… Heavy Reading Style

A whole host of stuff worthy of noting.

To begin with, and on a completely self-serving note, my food obsession intersects just slightly with my day job. The writing’s a bit heavier than you might get in USA Today or the Post-Gazette. But it’s still neat stuff.

Want to get an up-close look at some local farms? PASA is sponsoring a local farm tour this Saturday!

And it’s been a while for this, but there is a new entry in the Fast Food Abomination of the Week. And it’s a returning champ this time, Quiznos, for its $5 “large deli favorite subs,” the commercials for which proudly proclaim that these subs come with one pound of meat.

Speaking of way too much food – or, perhaps more accurately, calories – Americans continue to get bigger.

From 2005 to 2007, the proportion of adults who were obese (based on self-reported height and weight) increased by 7% to a nationwide average of 25.6%, Deborah Galuska, Ph.D., of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and colleagues reported in the July 18 issue of MMWR: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

In three states -- Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee -- almost a third of adults were obese.

But it appears that Burger King has gotten part of the message. After close to a year of test marketing, Burger King is taking its apple fries – red delicious apples cut to look like French fries – nationwide.

The nationwide launch coincides with its new BK Positive Steps Nutrition Program and nutritionally balanced kids meal.

The apples are available a la carte for $1.49, said Burger King spokeswoman Heather Krasnow.

The kids’ meal offers a serving of macaroni and cheese, fresh apple fries with a low-fat caramel dipping sauce and a low-fat milk. The meal has a total of 350 calories and less than 25% of calories from fat. It carries a suggested retail price of $3.49.

I’m still not taking my kids there.

And those tainted tomatoes? Psych. But look out for the Ja-Lop-A-Nose!

Federal officials investigating a three-month-old salmonella outbreak have isolated the bacteria in a jalapeƱo pepper from a small distribution facility in McAllen, Tex., and yesterday warned consumers nationwide to avoid eating raw jalapeƱos or products that contain them until more is known.

It’s a good thing the jalapenos in our garden, and like four other pepper varieties, are finally starting to appear.

And this takes home gardening to a whole other, kind of snobby, level

That is where Trevor Paque comes in. For a fee, Mr. Paque, who lives in San Francisco, will build an organic garden in your backyard, weed it weekly and even harvest the bounty, gently placing a box of vegetables on the back porch when he leaves. …

As a result of interest in local food and rising grocery bills, backyard gardens have been enjoying a renaissance across the country, but what might be called the remote-control backyard garden — no planting, no weeding, no dirt under the fingernails — is a twist. “They want to have a garden, they don’t want to garden,” said the cookbook author Deborah Madison, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M.

I guess if you don’t gain any satisfaction from growing a little of your own food and have the cash to spend on a personal gardener, why not, eh?

July 21, 2008

All the Industrial Meat School Kids Can Eat

This is a story about meat. It is not good.

It is a story about the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). Under this voluntary program, participating farms and other “livestock premises” register any cows, chickens, etc. that they raise – even if not intended for consumption -- with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and place a satellite-tracked “tag” on them.

This system is designed to respond to a disease outbreak in such animals, a la the “mad cow disease” problems in the UK a while back. Apparently, some members of Congress think it would help in the case of a massive E. coli-related meat recall like those the United States has experienced in the last few years.

In practice, it would do nothing of the sort.

This program is precisely the opposite of what is needed to improve our food safety. Not only does it provide incentives for [confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs)], but it fails to address the main source of food-borne illnesses – poor practices at the packing plants and food processing facilities. In the Hallmark/Westland beef recall, the problem was that the packing plant broke the law governing “downer” cattle and the USDA inspectors didn’t properly inspect the plant. In the Humane Society’s video, every time there was a clear shot of a cow’s left ear, you could see a tag! Changing the type of tag to an NAIS electronic tag would do nothing to address the problem.

The immediate issue? A provision in the House Appropriations Committee 2009 agriculture appropriations bill that requires the USDA to purchase meat products for the National School Lunch Program from livestock premises registered with NAIS beginning next July.

The National School Lunch Program, for those who don’t know, “provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children [in public schools] each school day.”

So, let’s revisit. What’s been the genesis of the U.S. meat recalls? Questionable meat as a result of questionable practices at massive packing/processing companies like Hallmark (meat that is then distributed by other large companies like Westland).

Where do they get their meat: the big CAFOs. So what? Under the said provision in this appropriations bill...

Confinement operations and massive corporate operations get essentially a free ride through provisions for “group identification,” which would not be available to most family farms. The industry organizations who helped create the program carefully provided that group or lot identification would only be allowed where animals are managed as a group from birth to death and never commingled with animals outside of their production system, a practice that is essentially limited to CAFOs and vertically integrated corporate operations. Family farmers stuck with tagging every animal (in most cases, with electronic identification) and reporting their movements would quickly be crushed by the expense, paperwork burdens, and potential fines for any failure to comply with this complex program.

[Quick aside to define something. From the comments to this op-ed, a family farmer provides a good definition of “vertically integrated corporate operations.”

The consolidation in the food animal industry, as well as the continued growth of completely integrated operations (where the processor owns the farm, the animals, and the processing plant), has led to a situation where independent producers, whether contracting or selling on the open market, are beholden to big corporations.]

I don’t know how many smaller-scale farms provide meat products to schools. I suspect it’s not many. But this requirement seems to have the sole purpose of driving any meat from small farms out of the school lunch game -- or, more likely, never letting them get started in the first place.

And, again, it would do nothing to address the problem raised by Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee Chair Rep. Rosa DeLauro in describing this bill:

This proposal would increase participation in the animal ID program. Also, in a case such as the historic Hallmark/Westland beef recall earlier this year, we would know about the history of the animals involved which could help address public health concerns.

Based on my own reading, most small farms do not rely on the same large meat processing plants that the big CAFOs do, mostly because, even if they wanted to (which at this point, given what’s been exposed in books like Fast Food Nation and in other reports about the inhumane way workers are treated and the foul conditions in many of these allegedly federally inspected plants, you wouldn’t think would be the case), they don’t provide enough volume for the plants to accept their business.

And, even more frustrating is that many small farms have a hard time finding processing plants they can work with, and the small processing plants – according to a recent report from the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (to which I can’t track down a link at the moment!) – have their own serious regulatory and workforce issues that are threatening their ability to continue operating.

What’s the bottom line?

Contact your member of Congress and let them know that 1) this proposal sucks, and 2) make it go away. Just say it nicely. Something along the lines of…

In the wake of the recent Hallmark beef recall, I appreciate any effort to ensure meat safety, particularly any meat intended for consumption by our school children. However, this NAIS provision in the House 2009 Agriculture Appropriations bill will do little to nothing to address situations like this, while effectively ending the participation of small- to mid-size family farms that engage in sustainable practices and provide what many consider far superior meat products to those that come from large confinement operations and meat processing plants.

It occurs to me that if Rep. DeLauro is really concerned about meat safety and our school children, she would take steps to provide some help to smaller farms and processors, directing the USDA to specifically purchase a certain percentage of organic fruits and vegetables, and pastured/grass-fed meat from said farms, and offer grants to help processors with their challenges.

I guess that’s too much to expect, though.

In the meantime, hopefully this lawsuit will stop this legislative atrocity in its tracks.

July 17, 2008

Eggs, Summer Veg, Goat Cheese

Had our first zucchini from the garden.

Had one of those tremendous mild white onions from the farm.

Had some brown eggs, also tremendous, from a different local farm.

Had a red pepper, courtesy of large grocery store chain.

Had some goat cheese, courtesy of same said large grocery store chain.

Had some fantastic, crusty bread – removed from freezer few hours prior – courtesy of the DeLallo store in Jeannette, Pa.

Had a delicious dinner.

Scrambled Eggs with Goat Cheese and Grilled Vegetables

  • 5 eggs (cage-free & local, if you can get ‘em)
  • 2 – 3 oz. of goat cheese, crumbled
  • Half of a zucchini, cut thinly into half-moons
  • Half a large red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
  • ½ cup of thinly sliced onion
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • A few slices of crusty bread

Light a grill.

Beat eggs in a bowl with some salt and pepper. Toss the vegetables in a different bowl with a tablespoon or two of olive oil, salt, and pepper. When grill is sufficiently not (but not too hot), add vegetables. A grill plate or even some foil is advisable.

When vegetables are beginning to get tender, put a tablespoon of butter in a medium pan, over medium heat. Add eggs.

When vegetables are close to tender, add bread to grill. Cook on either side for 30 seconds to a minute. Remove vegetables from grill when they are tender, but careful not to overcook them. Onions should be nicely caramelized, hopefully with a few crispy ones.

Cook eggs until slightly more than set. Add a big scoop of eggs on top of a piece of toast, sprinkle on some goat cheese, and top each with a healthy portion of the vegetables. If you feel like it, drizzle a few drops of balsamic vinegar over top.


July 7, 2008

Scrapin' Up the Bits... Humble Pie Style

I understand that my blog moniker is a bit… well, highly presumptuous. I am by no measure what Tony Bourdain or any other chef would consider a cook. I use it more in a dual sense: that I aspire to become highly skilled in the kitchen, and, in the more mundane sense, that, because I work out of my house, I don’t have to spend time commuting and, thus, do most of the cooking in our household.

And I cook a lot. But it’s not always good.

I’ve had several misfires lately. Wahoo steaks partly mangled on a ridiculously hot Weber grill while on vacation. The scallops that never got seared because I didn’t let the cast-iron pan get hot enough, accompanied by a grainy cauliflower puree. And, last night, a “spatchcock” chicken that was a tad undercooked -- well, the breasts -- because I pulled it from the grill too early. (In my defense, it was a big-a#$ chicken! Probably not the best choice for our first spatchcock. And, it should be noted, my wife did a wonderful job preparing the flattened out chicken.)

The only saving grace was the fantastic, remarkably tender grass-fed T-bones -- from Deanna and David McMaken’s Rose Ridge Organic Beef in Waynesburg, Ohio – I made on Saturday night. My ego needed that.

Meanwhile, a few other notable items….

What was that I said the other day, while discussing the new PGH program, about how there will be more food recalls? Another one might be coming pretty quickly…

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is broadening its testing of food beyond tomatoes, including looking at imported products, to find the source of a salmonella outbreak in the United States, a spokesman said on Monday. …

Although tomatoes are still the "lead suspect," cilantro, jalapeno peppers and Serrano peppers have been added as possible culprits, according to FDA spokesman Mike Herndon.

And another reminder that corn as a fuel source is highly susceptible to weather perturbations.

Analysts said it's still too early to tell how much the Midwest crops have been damaged, but they will be keeping a close watch on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the government agency continues to assess the crop land.

A large loss of acreage could slash U.S. corn production and push next season's year-end stocks to the lowest level since just after World War II, some analysts said. If bad weather continues in July and August, corn prices could rise to $10 a bushel, said Shawn Hackett, president of agriculture futures brokerage Hackett Financial Advisors.

Speaking of corn, Food & Wine, meanwhile, finds some organic or otherwise sustainably produced spirits, including…

Prairie Organic Vodka A clean, creamy vodka produced from organic corn grown by a Minnesota farmers’ co-op. The leftover cobs are converted to biofuel that powers distillation ($26).

And, finally, Mental Masala at the Ethicurean has the goods on Wal-Mart’s going all locavore. Part of the reason: reduce liability issues in the event of a recall, as I suggested the other day in the aforementioned PGH program post.

The big question, however, is whether this is the real deal, working with small farmers to procure fresh fruits and veg, or whether the company will resort to its usual, um, hardball tactics that many would argue do more harm than good.