March 25, 2009

Scrapin' Up the Bits... Welcome Back Neko Style

So much news, so little brain power to process it all...

I don't know if this will have the legs to get through the sausage-making process, pun intended, but Rep. Louise Slaughter has introduced a bill that would put tough limits on the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics on farms raising pigs and such for consumption by, well, consumers. This is aimed directly at factory farms, you know, those kind that don't smell too good.

Who knew you could learn so much in an actual piece of legislation...
      (5)(A) an estimated 70 percent of the antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs used in the United States are fed to farm animals for nontherapeutic purposes, including--
        (i) growth promotion; and
        (ii) compensation for crowded, unsanitary, and stressful farming and transportation conditions; and
      (B) unlike human use of antibiotics, these nontherapeutic uses in animals typically do not require a prescription;
(6)(A) large-scale, voluntary surveys by the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in 1999, 2001, and 2006 revealed that 84 percent of grower-finisher swine farms, 83 percent of cattle feedlots, and 84 percent of sheep farms administer antimicrobials in the feed or water for health or growth promotion reasons, and many of the antimicrobials identified are identical or closely related to drugs used in human medicine, including tetracyclines, macrolides, Bacitracin, penicillins, and sulfonamides;

(9) the United States Geological Survey reported in March 2002 that--
(A) antibiotics were present in 48 percent of the streams tested nationwide; and (B) almost half of the tested streams were downstream from agricultural operations;

On the local tip, Pines Tavern in the northern 'burbs, not too far from Casa de Fillippelli, is having these monthly beer dinners. They are, on the whole, affordable. This month's dinner, which began tonight and runs through Friday, features beers from Peak Organic Brewing and some local pork. Unfortunately we had things going on all three nights. Next month, though, as long as the beer offering is decent, I'm there, kids in tow.

Speaking of local, CSA season is not too far away. If you haven't signed up for one, better do it soon.

The Times weighs in on food politics with a semi-strange article, "Is a Food Revolution Now in Season." I didn't find it as off-putting as some. It provides some good general background on the growth of the sustainability movement in the U.S., and it also highlights one of the biggest problems with ag policy in the U.S.: the obstinance and, in my view, corruption of the legislators from the farm states that have been doing big ag's bidding for far too long.

Of course, [Agriculture Secretary] Vilsack will need the approval of Congress for any major changes in farm policy, and therein lies his greatest challenge. Congress passed a farm bill last year that details farm policy for the next five years, and farm-state legislators say they are not interested in starting over.

When the Obama administration recently proposed a budget that would cut subsidies to the nation’s largest farmers and bolster child nutrition payments, it was greeted with hostility in Congress, even by some Democrats.

And, finally, as for the title of this post, Neko Case, she of the glorious pipes, is back with a new album, complete with first single. And, yeah, it's live. No production. Enjoy.

March 19, 2009

So much news...

Amid the outrage over what seems like epidemic levels of white-collar crime and white-collar chicanery and just plain ol' white-collar irresponsibility, there has been a ton o' food and agriculture-related news.

It's hard to stay on top of it all. Sadly, I have not.

So, for those interested, here are some links that may prove useful:

1) Obama continues to send mixed messages on food-related issues. Names an FDA commissioner with extensive food safety/regulation background, but is apparently looking to name a guy to head a Food Safety Working Group who helped Monsanto get its genetically modified veg onto grocery market shelves and into humans with effectively no requirement for clinical testing. This guy is the epitome of the revolving door between industry and government and everything Obama has railed against. Just like in a college basketball game, all I ask for is consistency.

2) Tainted peanuts scare the bejeezus out of legislators. Or, at the very least, makes them think it's a political winner, 'cause there's all sort of food safety legislation that's been introduced. If the feedback I've seen from the local sustainable ag community is any barometer, there is concern that these bills won't effectively differentiate between small, family farms and small-scale meat processors and the big factory farms and their often co-owned massive meat-processing/packing facilities. The latter, for the uninitiated, are the ones linked to things like spinach and beef recalls.

3) NAIS. It's hard to get a grip on this thing, but the small farmers hate it and it appears to be with good reason. A lot of action has taken place and it's unclear to me what can be done at this point about it. I wrote about it last summer. But a lot has happened since them.

4) And, finally, Nickolas Kristof at the NY Times is opening eyes to antibiotic resistance and the gross overuse of antibiotics on factory farms. Must read graphs:

The peer-reviewed Medical Clinics of North America concluded last year that antibiotics in livestock feed were “a major component” in the rise in antibiotic resistance. The article said that more antibiotics were fed to animals in North Carolina alone than were administered to the nation’s entire human population.

“We don’t give antibiotics to healthy humans,” said Robert Martin, who led a Pew Commission on industrial farming that examined antibiotic use. “So why give them to healthy animals just so we can keep them in crowded and unsanitary conditions?”

The answer is simple: politics.

March 17, 2009

New & Improved Strip by 2010?

I make no excuse about my love for Pittsburgh's Strip District. It's one of the destinations that makes Pittsburgh a great city. It has something for everybody, particularly those who like to eat.

Whether it's Lucy's banh mi, Penn Mac's great selection of cheeses, La Prima's unparalleled coffee drinks (and sfogliatelle from Colangelo's next door to it, or the freakin' fantastic popcorn from Pittsburgh Popcorn Company right next t0 that! Talk about a trifecta. Mamma Mia!), Penn Avenue Fish Company's always outstanding selection of fresh seafood (not to mention it's kick-a#$ fish tacos). I could go on and on, and could eat my way down Penn Ave for a few days with little problem.

Now, the PG's Brian O'Neill reports, the organization Neighbors in the Strip is inching closer to making an expansion of the shopping possibilities in the Strip a reality. And, importantly, it doesn't sound like it's the kind of expansion/gentrification that's seen in many American cities these days -- that is, one dominated by chain restaurants and stores.

The answer may be taking a sixth of the big, old produce terminal on Smallman Street -- now owned by the Urban Redevelopment Authority and almost strictly a wholesaling complex -- and making it a public market. ...

More than 30 potential merchants have expressed interest, and they haven't even begun advertising. A big part of this will be local farmers providing meat and produce in season. Jamison Farm of Latrobe, which sells about 5,000 lambs a year to top restaurants from New York to Las Vegas, is interested, and Ms. Cassell says she's already found a guy who grows 15 kinds of garlic, about 14 more than I knew existed.

The market house likely would open four days a week. About 12,000 square feet would be devoted to fresh and prepared foods, and another 5,400 square feet, a block down the walkway, would offer flowers, crafts and such.

The only guy I'm aware of whose that into garlic is Farmer Troy! However, an inside source tells me it's not him... and that there aren't 15 kinds of garlic.

Sounds like there is a wee bit of a funding gap - to the tune of a million smackeroos -- slowing things down, and that the earliest this could happen would be next spring. Nevertheless, it's an exciting prospect that I hope comes to fruition.

March 16, 2009

For the Record

Last year, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was kind enough to publish an op-ed I wrote about beef recalls and beef safety. The bottom line message, I suppose, was that the rash of beef recalls was disturbing and that purchasing beef from local farmers was a good way to take personal action that could -- in addition to getting some good meat and supporting local food systems -- help spur much-needed change in beef cattle farming and processing.

Some time later, my wife's aunt (my aunt in-law?) informed me that a LTE had been published in response to my op-ed (link here, scroll down). Authored by Mr. William R. Henning, the Emeritus Professor of Animal and Food Science at Penn State University, the letter basically said U.S. beef is extraordinarily safe:

Strict and numerous government regulations along with strong industry leadership protect the safety of our beef. For example, each of the 100 million animals that enter the human food supply annually is closely inspected by veterinarians and trained inspectors. (emphasis mine)

I had been meaning to respond to this letter on my poorly read blog for some time. This finally got me to do it:

President Obama on Saturday nominated Margaret Hamburg, former New York City health commissioner, to head the FDA, and announced he is taking new measures to address food safety.

During his weekly radio address, Obama said a lack of funds and staff at FDA in recent years have left the agency with only enough resources to inspect just 7,000 of 150,000 food processing plants and warehouses annually. (emphasis mine)

Now the USDA is responsible for the safety of beef via inspections, etc. But surely the experience of the FDA couldn't be that different than the USDA, could it? Um, no, it couldn't:

The legal requirements for inspections, combined with a reduced force, mean that the inspection goals have not been met for years, according to inspectors. They say the workload is unrealistic, reducing their duties to cursory checks of company records, not the physical examination of meat, poultry and eggs. ...

But one of those inspectors was responsible for a total of five processing plants.That means spending one hour and 36 minutes each day in each plant, she said.

“This is a problem we’ve been pointing out to them forever,” Nestor said.”There are vacancies and shortages all over the country. In a lot of places, the patrol assignments are doubled and tripled up.” (emphasis mine)

[The story linked to above is admittedly a little old. But I think it's safe to say that little to nothing has changed since then.] Am I saying that the U.S. beef supply is irrevocably tainted? No. Dr. Henning claims that cases of E. coli have been low and steady. A quick search of the CDC Web site didn't turn up any statistics along those lines, so I still have to confirm that. Even if it's the case, the massive beef recalls in 2007 and 2008 really did, in my mind, underscore that there are some serious shortcomings in the beef safety net.

Given the points above about significant "vacancies and shortages" among beef processing plant inspectors -- a far cry from Mr. Henning's "closely inspected" -- would it be safe to say there might be many more recalls if there were an adequate number of inspectors? What do you think?

March 13, 2009

Disturbing Food Recall of the Day

The title only tells part of the story:
California Firm Recalls Poultry Products Imported From an Unapproved Source

It's the actual "poultry product" that I find more disturbing:

Khong Guan Corporation, a Union City, Calif., establishment, is recalling approximately 2,858 pounds of chicken drink products that were ineligible for import to the U.S., the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today. ...

The products subject to recall include: [View Labels]
  • Packages containing six 2.3-fluid ounce-bottles of "BRAND'S Essence of Chicken Drink"
  • Packages containing six 2.3-fluid ounce-bottles of "BRAND'S Essence of Chicken Drink, with Cordyceps Extract"
  • Packages containing six 2.3-fluid ounce-bottles of "BRAND'S Essence of Chicken Drink, with 4 Herbs"
  • Packages containing six 2.3-fluid ounce-bottles of "BRAND'S Essence of Chicken Drink, with Lingzhi"
  • Packages containing six 2.3-fluid ounce-bottles of "BRAND'S Essence of Chicken Drink, with Ginseng

What, pray tell, is a "chicken drink product"? Some Googling indicates that it's a nutritional supplement that the maker of one brand claims "helps to relieve tiredness and to restore both your mental and physical energy, by increasing your metabolic rate."

Perhaps it's just some form of chicken soup sold in the form of a child's juice box. If so, you'd think they could come up with something better than "chicken drink," eh? How about "Poultry Power Juice" or a "Bock Bock Box"? Those are free of charge for any of you entrepreneurs out there.