August 27, 2008

Statement of Grave Concern

Below is the text of a recent letter to the dean of the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences. It was also posted to a Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture message board. The “statement of grave concern” is both intriguing and disturbing, and for those who aren’t immediate members of the local agriculture community but who, like me, just like to eat what those guys produce, is a real eye opener.

I’ve bolded some sentences to add emphasis, and I have some further commentary after the letter, but be sure to read the whole thing. Also, let me apologize in advance for being such a techno-idiot that I cannot figure out how to do that “read the rest of the entry” thing. I’ve tried a few times, but failed. In either case, happy reading.

Statement of Grave Concern

August 19, 2008

To: Robert D. Steele, Dean, Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences

From: Timothy LaSalle, CEO, Rodale Institute
Leslie Zuck, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO)
Kim Seeley, President, Board of Directors, Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA)

Pennsylvania Ag Progress Days is one of the state's premiere annual events to showcase the best of Pennsylvania agriculture. The 2008 edition of this event comes after a year when food costs, food safety, food v. fuel use and even food sufficiency have been major news items.

It is therefore deeply disappointing and frankly shocking that members of the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences have announced a departmental slate of workshops that attack a number of approaches to farming that are benefiting hundreds of family farmers across the Commonwealth. Many of these feature human, environmental or animal advantages documented by research -- some by research at Penn State.

A July 28 press release titled "See agricultural myths busted during Ag Progress Days," promises "we will investigate and analyze some widely believed agricultural misconceptions and scientifically show why they are false." Some of the myths promised to be "debunked" include:

  • "High Milk Production Burns Out cows"
  • "Organic Therapies are Better than Conventional Antibiotic Treatments"
  • "Grass-fed and Organic Beef is better for Consumers" and
  • "rBST-Free Milk is Better for Consumers"

The "myth-buster" topics listed in the release are simplistic and sweeping statements about organic animal-health therapies, grass-fed and organic beef, rBST-free milk and agriculture's impact on the environment. This format reduces complex issues of animal, human and environmental well-being to a true-or-false treatment of selected facts. There is no indication that the workshops will be careful examinations of how Pennsylvania agriculture can become more ecologically sound or produce food that is more healthful through many different agricultural approaches.

Because of benefits to their health, well-being and profitability, hundreds of Pennsylvania farmers have chosen to farm organically. With the even greater numbers who have adopted grass-based dairy or beef production, these farm families have experienced greater profit potential and seen empirical evidence of changed conditions in their fields and herds.

It is profoundly troubling, then, that the Penn State planners of these workshops would so recklessly disparage the value of products being marketed by Pennsylvania farmers. In the case of certified organic farmers, these individuals have complied with precise process rules listed in federal regulation sanctioned by the USDA. It is further troubling to have the animal science department at Penn State take a propaganda-like approach for a narrow special interest group.

Innovative farmers and farm organizations in Pennsylvania expect our Land-Grant university to be a leader in improving the sustainability of agriculture in a period when fossil-fuel based inputs are more expensive and scarce and it's increasingly imperative to remove farm chemicals from our waterways. At the same time consumers are demanding more local food produced with less energy-intensive methods and toxic chemicals in more transparent processes.

Timothy J. LaSalle, Ph.D., is CEO of the Rodale Institute. … For 12 years he was a full professor at Cal Poly, where he taught dairy science classes and served as the president and CEO of California's Agriculture Education Foundation. While at Cal Poly, LaSalle started and operated a conventional dairy near Templeton, California. He issued this statement on the release:

"As a dairy scientist, I find Penn State's treatment of organic dairy management unobjective, unscientific, unprofessional and deleterious to many livestock farmers in Pennsylvania who are making extra efforts to farm well. Replicated research shows that there are nutritional benefits in organic milk that are beneficial to human health. This approach also dismisses the legitimate concerns of tens of thousands of Pennsylvania consumers who are benefiting from the documented health benefits from organic foods, especially animal products."

Leslie Zuck is a co-founder and Executive Director of Pennsylvania Certified Organic and a graduate of Penn State University (1980). She owns and operates Common Ground Organic Farm in Centre County and served on the advisory board for Penn State's Organic Transition Project, which can be viewed on the bus tour at Ag Progress Days. She issued this statement on the release:

"Scientific, peer-reviewed studies published by reputable universities and research organizations show the health and environmental benefits of organic, pasture-based and rBGH-free food and farming systems. It is irresponsible for Penn State researchers to use the Ag Progress Days venue to "scientifically show why they are false" (quote from Brad Hilty, Penn State senior extension associate). It is exceedingly unprofessional for an institution of Penn State's caliber to stoop to sensationalizing an important and controversial topic rather than approaching it directly with fair, accurate and well-balanced discourse. This event perpetuates the myth that there is only one way to farm - big, industrialized, highly capitalized, resource intensive - Penn State's way.

"It is a mystery to me why Penn State is unwilling to support organic farming, which is the only sector of agriculture that continues to grow in our state. While farms are going out of business due to lack of profits or lack of interest by future generations, organic production provides an opportunity for families to stay on the farm, produce healthy food, protect the environment and receive a stable income. While we appreciate Penn State College of Agricultural Science's offering several courses in organic production for the first time this year, we are certainly mystified by this unwarranted attempt to steer consumers and farmers away from organic food and production methods.

"We suggest Penn State issue an apology to the thousands of organic and sustainable farmers of Pennsylvania who are working hard to produce high-quality, nutritious and healthy food for our Commonwealth."

Kim Seeley is president of the board of directors of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), co-owner of Milky Way Dairy Farm and co-founder of Northern Tier Sustainable Meats Co-op. Both farm enterprises supply Penn State's sister school, The Pennsylvania College of Technology food service, with all of their fluid milk and a majority of their ground beef requirements. He issued this statement on the release:

"Unfortunately this is what I have come to expect, since graduating from Penn State 30 years ago. I realized then how research money was having a growing influence in the Land Grant university system. Regrettably for Pennsylvania dairy and beef farmers, the Department of Animal and Dairy Science has been infiltrated the most with an unparalleled lack of respect for the basics of animal husbandry and denial of the intricate differences in nutritional content of animal byproducts from those produced on pasture or by organic methods.

"Recently the Northern Tier Sustainable Meats Co-op funded research at Penn State (not via dairy/animal science) looking at fat-soluble vitamin levels in ground beef samples from cows fed on pasture and stored feeds. The results of this research tell the story clearly, production methods create very different end results. Each of the past 5 years, I have guest lectured at Penn State for a course entitled "Morality and Ethics in Agriculture," and when I show butter and cheese samples from grass-based cows, compared to our winter samples, the students are wide eyed and openly admit they are only studying an industrial approach to dairy/animal science."

Now, admittedly, this is a one-sided argument. But I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt to these letter writers.

Having written about medical research for more than a decade, I know that universities get money from industry and industry front groups for all sorts of things, including funding research, supporting educational programs, etc. And it’s clear that some times this funding can create bias, some times unintentional, toward products produced or positions taken by those industries.

But reading this letter, one gets a clear impression that these folks believe the Penn State Ag program is lock, stock, and barrel in industry’s back pocket. And there is some evidence to support that.

When, for example, I was doing research for the op-ed on the milk labeling controversy I had published in December in the Post-Gazette, I came across the blog of Terry Etherton (although this blog doesn’t allow comments, which, IMO, means it really isn’t a blog).

Dr. Etherton is head of the Department of Dairy and Animal Science at Penn State University. The following is some of the text from the “about this blog” section of his blog:

There are many anti-ag, anti-biotech, and anti-science activist groups who use campaigns of misinformation and junk science to scare consumers. This is done to hinder adoption and use of the products of biotechnology for agriculture. These attacks are slanderous and falsely imprecate the scientific method and many reputable scientists in the United States and throughout the World who are striving to move society ahead. One objective of this blog site is to champion science and scientists who are pursuing the greater good, to help society move forward.

To begin with, it is hard to fathom that any respected scientist could produce such… well, let’s be honest about it, drivel. I have spoken with some of the country’s most well-respected researchers on topics like infectious disease, cardiology, and cancer, and I’m fairly certain none of them – or at least 99 percent of them -- would ever post/publish such a generalized ad hominem attack.

I must wonder if, in Dr. Etherton’s mind, this paragraph describes people like the writers of the above “Statement of Grave Concern.” They may be, in many respects, anti-biotech, but I think one would be hard-pressed to say they are anti-ag or even anti-science.

According to Dr. Etherton, those who don’t think pumping cows full of hormones to squeeze a little more milk out of ‘em -- damn the cow’s health or any potential threat to the public health (threats that people like Dr. Etherton argue do not exist, based on little data in actual humans) -- doesn’t want “to move society ahead.”

Personally, I would consider things like promoting organic methods for producing crops and milk and meat (which protects the environment and improves soil quality, among other things), and reducing the use of chemicals and pesticides that can infiltrate and destroy water ways and harm people and animals the ideal example of “moving society ahead.” But I’m just silly that way.

Reading through some recent posts from Dr. Etherton’s blog also demonstrates, well, should we call it a disdain for any sort of agricultural practice that doesn’t involve inputs that line the pockets of biotech companies like Monsanto. For example, one recent post highlight a study published in the “prestigious” Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

The study, he explains, “found that there were ‘no meaningful differences’ in the composition of milk with the three different label claims,” those claims being “conventional,” “hormone/rBST-free,” or “organic.”

I’m in no position to judge the quality of this research. I freely admit that. Although I could point out that the objections to milk from rBST cows aren’t strictly relegated to human health concerns (not that this study in any way alleviates those concerns – you need to take an exhaustive look at actual humans to do that!).

But given the theme of the “Statement of Grave Concern” that prompted this post, I’ll just end with something very simple, from the “authors” box of the paper: the affiliation of the lead author and the majority of the others listed as co-authors…

J. Vicini is a senior research fellow, J. Ballam is lead for biostatistics and data services, R. Staub is lead for molecular and cellular biochemistry, D. Goldstein is director of medical toxicology, R. Cady is technical product manager, and M. McGrath is senior lactation physiologist, all at Monsanto Company LC, St Louis, MO.

August 25, 2008

Tuna and Salmon and Cobia, Oh My

While picking up about 40 pounds of meat at Farmer’s @ Firehouse last Saturday, made the usual stop at the best place for fresh seafood in Pittsburgh, Penn Avenue Fish Company.

We wanted to make some fish tacos, a desire of which I informed the staid fellow who is often there on Saturday mornings – a co-owner, I believe. So he suggested doing what Penn Ave. does for its fish tacos: a mixed grill of fresh fish. He gave me some chunks of tuna, salmon, and cobia for a reasonable price.

Next stop was just a block or two down Penn Ave., Reyna’s Mexican Grocery, for some fresh tortillas made in the store. Also picked up some store-made roasted tomatillo salsa and red corn chips. The end result was quite fantastic and a perfect summer meal.

For the fish, I made a quick marinade of diced cilantro, lime juice, about a tablespoon of chile powder, canola oil, salt and pepper.

Then used a mandolin to thinly slice some cabbage.

Next was a quick sauce comprised of about a half-cup of sour cream, half a lime, about a tablespoon of ancho chile powder, and a little squeeze of honey.

Finally, threw the fish on the grill over fairly high heat (and also heated the tortillas on the grill as well). In about 6-7 minutes, the fish was cooked. Removed it to a cutting board, gave it a rough chop, topped it with the slaw, the sauce, and some chopped yellow tomatoes from the garden.

Poop-Tainted Spinach? Just Nuke It

Now, I don’t know as much about irradiating food as I’d like. Which is to say that I know next to nothing. But nevertheless, the increasingly strident skeptic in me is just howling over this

After two years of nearly constant food-borne illness outbreaks and recalls of everything from tainted peanut butter to tons of hamburger meat, the Food and Drug Administration's decision last week to allow the irradiation of lettuce and spinach to kill dangerous bacteria didn't surprise anyone in the food industry. …

Zapping spinach and iceberg lettuce with a tiny shot of radiation is an effective way to prevent deadly outbreaks of E. coli, according to the FDA, which says it's safe. But not everyone agrees.

The disagreements are fairly obvious. First, nuking food just doesn’t seem safe, and some quick Googling indicates that there really isn’t a good body of research on whether it is safe.

Second, as the article points out, it’s a way to put a technological band-aid on what is really a food production and processing problem. So huge fields of leafy greens are way too close to factory farms overloaded with cows that produce mountains of pooh (and lots of flatulence, but that’s a global warming story) that gets washed into nearby streams or down hills into Popeye’s favorite canned food.

Generally, I’m not opposed to technology that can improve our lives. But in this case, this criticism makes a lot of sense…

"Food irradiation is a pseudo-fix," said Bill Freese, a science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety in Washington. "It's a way to try to come in and clean up problems that are created in the middle of the food production chain. I think it's clearly a disincentive to clean up the problems at the source." (emphasis mine)

It’s easy, of course, to fault one person or political party in the continuing degradation of our food production system. But that’s really taking the easy way out.

But Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association said the Bush administration isn't doing anything other administrations haven't tried.

"This is definitely bipartisan," Cummins said. "Every administration since FDR has been pro-agribusiness, and there hasn't been much difference in their policies."
Thankfully, food that has been irradiated has to be marked as such, and something tells me a big sticker that screams "IRRADIATED" isn't going to attract a lot consumers.

August 21, 2008

Some Yellow, Some Green, a Little Red...

... and a little Orange as well, which is the only color not from our garden. Love this time of year...

August 18, 2008

More Taste Testing: Organic Processed Foods

Most of our shopping time in our Local Large Grocery Chain is spent in the produce and organic sections (although we almost never buy the organic produce, mostly because it usually looks terrible).

Over the last year or so, we’ve found organic processed foods that we don’t mind paying more for, mostly because they actually taste better than their nonorganic counterparts.

Among our favorites:

Arrow Head Mills Vermont Maple Granola – This stuff is hearty, not too sweet, the maple flavor is not overwhelming, and it’s got a great crunch. I’ve tried various granolas, both organic and conventional, and this is by far my favorite.

As mentioned previously, I have granola and fruit almost every morning in my yogurt. And maple, at least to me, is not intuitively something that would go with yogurt and fruit. But this maple granola absolutely works. I never get tired of it.

Clif Kid Organic Z Bar – This is a very new favorite. We’ve only discovered them in the last month or so, and although my 3-year-old daughter isn’t impressed, the men in the family – namely me and my six-year-old eating machine son – have been eating them up.

As the name implies, these energy bars are geared toward kids, but I’ve been eating them like crazy. Low in fat and sugar, high in protein, these bars remind me of a no-bake cookie. They are not overly sweet, and despite their small stature, they are a filling snack. And, best of all, you can get a 24 pack (peanut butter, chocolate chip, and chocolate brownie!) at Costco for a really reasonable price.

Nature’s Path Hot Instant Oatmeals – We typically get these in a variety pack. Not on the same par as the previous two items, but still pretty good. Substantial, nice texture, enjoyable flavor. Again, IMO, not on par with the other two, but worth buying.

Full Circle Fruit & Cereal Bars – Now, granted, these are not USDA organic. The ingredient list is littered with organic this and that, but there are some conventional ingredients as well. And while I don’t eat them, I have tasted them, and they’re pretty good. I feel much better purchasing these to put in my kids lunches every so often than I do similar cereal bars made with nothing but corn- and soy-based fillers and chemicals I can’t pronounce.

August 8, 2008

Yogurt Taste Test


I eat it probably 350 days a year, if not more.

A while back, with prompting from my wife, I transitioned from flavored to plain yogurt. More recently, again prompted by my wife, I moved from plain yogurt to Greek yogurt – namely a brand called Fage (pronounced, as it explains on the container, “Fa-yeh!”).

And then, last week, while shopping in Large Local Grocery Chain – only a different location of said Large Local Grocery Chain where we typically shop – in the section for frozen organic food and mostly organic dairy products, another type of yogurt grabbed my attention.

It was in a tall bottle, sort of like an old fashioned milk bottle. It was from grass-fed cows. It was produced in Indiana. It looked more like milk than yogurt. It was pretty freakin’ expensive. But I was intrigued. I had to try it.

Thus, I now present a taste review of three different types of yogurt and offer my opinion on which is the Yogurt of Utmost Mouthwateringness, commonly referred to as

the YUM.

Brown Cow/Stonyfield Farms plain yogurt:

Both are good, rBST-free yogurts. Neither could be described as outstanding. On their own, they could be boring. But they readily accept additions like fruit and granola, which is pretty much how I eat my yogurt everyday. Both are also excellent for cooking, e.g., to add to certain types of soups or for making a salad dressing.

Fage (2%) Greek Yogurt:

Also rBST-free. However, it is shipped from Greece, so not necessarily an environmentally friendly choice in that regard.

Texturally speaking, it’s thick, far more like sour cream than your typical yogurt. It’s also slightly sour, like sour cream. But, man, this stuff is satisfying. It has complexity, because it has more than just a yogurty flavor. Also, it engulfs anything you mix into it, taking on its favor while also enhancing it. And it’s got substance. Half cup of this stuff with some fruit and something crunchy and you know without a doubt that you just had a meal. In short: addictive.

Traders Point Whole Milk Yogurt:

Grass-fed, organic, rBST-free. In terms of consistency, closer to heavy cream than standard yogurt. On day one, I wasn’t that impressed. Tasted more like milk than yogurt, and, truth be told, I have never been a fan of milk on its own. Even some impressively plump blueberries and delectable peaches didn’t seem to add much to the flavor. The fruit and yogurt just didn’t seem to get along. On day two, I liked it more. The consistency was less bothersome; felt like I was eating a yogurt soup. Day three added fruit and granola and, again, liked it a little more. However, definitely not filling and, while enjoyable, there’s nothing about it that makes me want to spend nearly $6 a bottle on it.
JUDGEMENT [imagine drum roll here]:

To quote King Julian (from the children’s movie Madagascar, of course):

After much deep and profound brain-type things inside my head, I hereby declare that Fage

is indeed the YUM.

Long live Fage (until my next yogurt discovery, that is!).

August 4, 2008

Bites, Lots of 'Em

So, been a while since you’ve had a post. What’s up

Oh, I don’t know. Been busy. Doing stuff around the house. Trying to finish reading an actual book. Keeping up with the political goings on. Oh, and eating, probably too much.

Politics… uh… Eating, you say?! Sounds like a ‘meaty’ topic, if you get my drift (snigger, snigger). Anything interesting?

Yeah, a meaty topic. Never heard that one before… But since you seem so interested, the last few weeks my tummy has been pretty happy. Let’s see. Where to begin….

How about Dish Osteria. An increasingly well-known and acclaimed Pittsburgh restaurant, it only took 3 years, but I finally made it to Dish. Fantastic, simple food. The formaggi e salumi, the panzanella (arugula, toasted ciabatta chunks!), the linguini with shrimp, crab, and perfectly seared scallops in a saffron cream sauce. All of it, Meraviglioso!

Reyna’s Taco Shack – Only there on Saturdays, this petite stand outside of Reyna’s Mexican Grocery in the Strip District has tacos and nothing else. Chicken or steak. Flour or corn tortilla. Two for $5. Very good stuff.

The tortillas, hand-made, are the real deal, not those semi-tastless things you get in the grocery store in a package of 10. My only knock was the shredded cheese, which was just the “Mexican” or “taco” cheese often found in the grocery store. Some crumbled queso fresco would put these tacos into another category of delicious. Not banh mi territory, mind you, but still excellent street food.

So you’ve just been splashing cash around town?

No, no, no, you silly narrator-type creation. Mostly been cooking in. For example, my wife made this a refreshing gazpacho. Large red and little yellow tomatoes from the farm, cucumbers and jalapeno from our garden. Fresh, baby, fresh.

Served with a few large... did I say large? ... seared scallops courtesy of Penn Ave. Fish Company and you’ve got the ideal meal for a breezy summer evening.

And because it was so good the first time around, the grilled zucchini strips atop some scrambled eggs and crumbled goat cheese returned to the menu.

Then, just last night, inspired by our meal at Dish, we pulled together our own formaggi e salumi plate, with some remarkable Tomme cheese from the grass-fed cows at Clover Mead Farm in upstate New York, not far from Berlington, Vermont (courtesy of friends), Beemster cheese with nettles, sweet soprasatta, olives, a little bread, and a side of grilled Kentucky Wonder Beans sprinkled with prosciutto and parmesan. Now that’s the way to end a week.

I suspect my exercise regimen, which is highly respectable, is not keeping pace with this recent eating regimen. Something has to give. Never a good thing.