Should you be a locavore? : Part III: politics, food shortages and globalization
Laura Silver
Special to the Valley News

Friday, June 27th, 2008.
Issue 26, Volume 12.

Last week we learned that the distance our food travels is less of an ecological issue than the type of food we eat and how it is produced. In First World countries every aspect of food production is political and the effects are anything but local.

Here in the US federal legislation, referred to as the Farm Bill, is enacted every five to seven years to set the direction of farm and food policy. It affects the cost and availability of food, methods of growing and producing it, the use/preservation of farmland and much more.

The latest version of the bill is currently in Congress. Its name – “The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008” – appears to signal a change in the wind. There are some new players and the focus has shifted fractionally away from agribusiness toward many of the issues espoused by the local-food movement.

It sounds like good news, but so far these players are just pawns making the first move in what may or may not be a new game. The 2008 bill will replace a 2002 version enacted in a time of budget surplus. Even if the reforms survive debate and receive funding, they’ll be merely a carbuncle on the nose of agribusiness-weighted policy.

Take corn, for example. Corn is big business – almost exclusively agribusiness. When, where and why it is grown are as much a function of Farm Bill subsidies as market forces. And on the fate of corn rests the fate of many.

Besides being a food crop, corn is the primary ingredient in livestock feed and an additive (corn syrup, anyone?) in almost all junk/fast food. Corn is also the easiest plant to convert to biofuel with current technology.

With what I’m sure was good intent, the 2002 Farm Bill included subsidies for growing corn for the biofuel market. However, rather than putting more corn under cultivation, agribusiness diverted existing crops from food and livestock use to biofuel, creating an artificial shortage and increasing costs to the livestock and food markets.

If you think this was accidental or unavoidable – may I just say “California energy shortage, early 2000s”?

In addition, corporate farming methods use huge quantities of petrochemical fertilizer, the cost of which continues to skyrocket as oil prices rise and get passed on to a groaning consumer. Even Ugh the Caveman can follow the cascade of consequences:

Less food/feed corn + higher growing/transportation costs = higher prices for poultry, pork, beef, corn itself and thousands of foods that contain it, as well as less available for foreign markets. (Don’t even get Ugh started on oil prices, the cost of plastic packaging and its effect on food prices.)

Europe has also subsidized food crops for biofuel – perhaps more than we have – with much the same result.

Though this is by no means the only factor in recent global food shortages, most analysts agree it is part of the problem – a part that can be laid at the door of politics and public policy. Government sets the rules; big business just perverts the intent and takes advantage of them for profit.

(Reasons for the shortages also include, among other things, a perfect storm of natural disasters, droughts and flooding worldwide. I’ll leave it to you to decide how much the resultant crop failures fall under “acts of God” or are part of the public-policy debate on global warming.)

We are also the primary market for specialty foods and items produced (hopefully by Fair Trade policy) in Third World countries pulling themselves out of grinding poverty by those efforts. Do we throw these producers to the wolves in our attempts to eat locally?

No one is saying we must get all of our food locally. But we must bear in mind that we see this, and all issues, through a First World lens. The average world citizen can’t even imagine a day when their food problem is deciding whether to buy from a farmer’s market or a fully stocked grocery store.

I have to confess that a certain fraction of local-food literature gives me a tiny chill. Occasionally I perceive a faint, tinny echo of the merest possibility of zealotry and xenophobia. For some folks, does that 100-mile radius make anyone outside it “them” to our “us”?

The local food movement asks some very cogent questions about our dysfunctional food system. But that system has global effects, as will any changes we make to it. While some of the solutions may be local, their effects will not be, and we need to factor that into the equation.

Laura Silver works as a Web designer and freelance writer from her off-the-grid straw bale home in Jamul. She is a lifelong “practical” environmentalist with a particular interest in green building and healthy home issues.

She can by reached by e-mail at


Food safety inspectors struggle with swelling volume of imports | Dallas Morning News | News for Dallas, Texas | Mexico News  


Food safety inspectors struggle with swelling volume of imports | Dallas Morning News | News for Dallas, Texas | Mexico News
Food safety inspectors struggle with swelling volume of imports

12:29 AM CDT on Monday, June 30, 2008


LAREDO – Day after day, Mexican trucks line up as far as the eye can see for entry to the U.S. at the World Trade Bridge, carrying everything from raw tomatoes, broccoli and fresh basil to frozen seafood. They also bring in salmonella, listeria, restricted pesticides and other food poisons.

Customs and Border Protection officers take less than a minute per truck to determine which products enter the U.S. and find their way into grocery stores and restaurants across North Texas.

Most trucks are waved through. The avalanche of imported goods – especially food from Mexico – is too much for the limited number of inspectors at the nation's 300 ports of entry to effectively screen, critics say. And the sheer volume makes it impossible for them to carry out their mission: protecting the U.S. food supply and American consumers.

Concerns about the nation's food inspection system are gaining urgency – especially as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration looks at Mexico as a likely source of salmonella-tainted tomatoes that have sickened more than 800 people in the last two months. The FDA last week sent inspectors to three Mexican states – Jalisco, Sinaloa and Coahuila – and Florida to check farms and packing plants.

The great majority of the food that crosses the southern U.S. border is safe, U.S. officials say. But a surge in imports in recent years means that the system of border inspections is badly strained and in urgent need of repair, the officials acknowledge.
Also Online

Chart: Top five importing countries (.pdf)

Part 2: Strict safety guidelines enforced as produce travels from Mexico to Texas

Inspectors at the border are tasked with enforcing hundreds of regulations from more than 40 government agencies. And just a tiny percentage of agricultural products, seafood and manufactured goods is actually inspected, say the critics.

"We have this huge growth in imports, this huge growth in trade; at the same time we have severely cut back on our regulatory agencies and their ability to do their job, especially the food portion of the Food and Drug Administration," said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine.

"If they are only checking 1 percent of the stuff and finding lots of problems, then ... there are a lot of problems that are never caught," she said.

What is getting stopped, critics say, is representative of what is getting through.

Overall, about 15 percent of the U.S. food supply and 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables consumed are imported, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

Mexico is the second-largest foreign source of agricultural products and seafood for the U.S. – moving to No. 1 during the winter months and filling about 60 percent of the supermarket produce aisle. And it's the worst offender when it comes to food shipments turned away at the border by U.S. inspectors, a review of food rejections shows.

Overwhelmed system

Here in Laredo, trucks sent to a dock for inspection are greeted by a hired crew that unloads samples of broccoli, tomatoes, and dried corn husks used for wrapping tamales. Customs and FDA inspectors move quickly, checking for poisons or pests that could damage U.S. agriculture.

On another dock, manufactured goods are hauled out of rigs by forklift and inspected for safety issues, such as lead in toys. Even tigers on their way to a U.S. circus tour are checked out for potential health risks.

"Whatever is put in front of you, you are going to make sure it meets all of the regulations in order to be introduced into the country," said Mucia Dovalina, a veteran inspector and public affairs liaison for Customs and Border Protection.

The problem, officials and analysts say, is the result of sometimes substandard agricultural practices south of the border, and a U.S. food inspection system that has become so overwhelmed that President Bush endorsed a 50-step plan that would put more emphasis on inspections in the countries of origin.

The in-country system would put U.S. inspectors in foreign countries or use third parties to check products before they are shipped to the U.S. It also would give the FDA mandatory recall powers over food products. Currently, the agency negotiates "voluntary" recalls.

"For many years, we have relied on a strategy based on identifying unsafe products at the border," Mr. Bush said late last year. "The problem is that the growing volume of products coming into our country makes this approach increasingly unreliable."

Both consumer groups and an internal FDA study group said the proposed Bush plan to fix the current system "within available resources" is far too modest.

"We can state unequivocally that the system cannot be fixed 'within available resources,' " the agency's subcommittee on science and technology said in a report late last year. The subcommittee called the inspection rate "appallingly low."

More eyes on imports

In fairness to Mexico, U.S. food producers were the subject of far more expansive recalls last year than foreign producers, including recalls of California spinach that tested positive for E. coli and was blamed for three deaths, and of 22 million pounds of frozen beef hamburger patties, also because of a dangerous strain of that common bacteria.

"I must emphasize that by and large, the food traded is very safe," said Suzanne Heinen, the USDA's counselor for agricultural affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. "We have very few problems, especially when you consider the volume of trade that crosses the border every day."

Still, food imports remain on Washington's radar – particularly in light of the latest salmonella outbreak.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt announced plans recently to open a food safety monitoring office in Latin America, similar to three being planned for China. He did not say which country might house the office, but he did say that a March salmonella warning against Honduran cantaloupes, along with the tomato scare, showed the need to be on the ground in exporting regions.

"What it demonstrates is that when these incidents occur, we need a quick response," he said in late June as U.S. and Mexican inspectors combed farms and packing houses in Mexican tomato-growing states for signs of the source of the salmonella.

Another recent recall targeting Mexican agriculture is an example of what consumer groups say is wrong with the system.

In December, officials took a sample for testing from a 5,500-pound load of Mexican basil moving through the Otay Mesa border crossing in San Diego. The basil continued on to its destination and was sold to restaurants and other customers in California, Texas and Illinois the next day.

When the test results came back two weeks later, they suggested salmonella contamination, sparking a late recall.

Mexico has been the subject of other recent recalls as well:

•In February 2007, the FDA recalled 672 cartons of Mexican cantaloupes after a sample analysis found salmonella, which can cause fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and arterial infections.

•In September, the FDA recalled a hard, dry cheese from Mexico that it suspected was contaminated with salmonella.

•And in early December, the Texas Department of State Health Services announced the voluntary recall of several Mexican candies after tests showed high lead levels. Lead can harm mental and physical development in children and unborn babies. California had banned the candies in August.

Many of Mexico's problematic goods are especially dangerous for children and the elderly, who can't fight off illness as well as healthy adults.

Nonpasteurized cheese – which can carry listeria and even tuberculosis, Mexican officials say – is often brought into the U.S. by border-crossers who are allowed to bring in up to 22 pounds "for personal consumption."

Often, the cheese makes its way into flea markets and restaurants, mostly in the Latino community.

The toll in Texas from nonpasteurized cheese over the last five years: four miscarriages or stillbirths, one newborn death, and four deaths of adults who weren't pregnant.

All but two were Latino.

A top Mexican health official acknowledged that some Mexican food producers cut corners to boost their profits or have simply not adopted modern safety measures, although they've made great strides in recent years.

For example, chile peppers are often spread out to dry on the ground, where they can pick up lead or pesticides only approved for other crops.

"In Mexico, we have a lot of work to do," said María Esther Díaz Carrillo, a chemist and food technician at Mexico's Federal Commission to Prevent Sanitary Risks, part of the Health Ministry. "We also have producers who are very conscientious ... of the risks associated with their products and truly dedicated to public health. In some cases, it's ignorance."

Increasing vigilance

Still, Mexico is not China when it comes to the breadth of the U.S. recalls last year – including those of pet food that killed hundreds of animals, toothpaste tainted with diethylene glycol, a poisonous chemical used in antifreeze, and millions of Mattel toys with dangerous levels of lead in their paint.

"I don't think we've reached those extremes," said Ms. Díaz. "Our vigilance and ability to respond has been increasing."

For example, Mexican and U.S. health authorities jointly inspect slaughterhouses in Mexico certified to export meat to the U.S.

Two of eight slaughterhouses were suspended from exporting to the U.S. after an inspection in late 2006, according to an inspection report. In one case, the facility was not properly testing for E. coli.

Both are back in operation.

The panel that came up with Mr. Bush's import safety plan also detected a series of problems with the current inspection system. Those include government computer databases involved in import safety that can't communicate with each other, as well as a practice called "port shopping," in which a shipment rejected at one port of entry can get through another.

Mr. Leavitt, the health and human services secretary, said there is no estimate on what it would cost to upgrade computer systems, put more U.S. inspectors abroad and carry out the report's other recommendations.

But in recent testimony before a Senate committee, Mr. Leavitt said there is a sense of urgency in improving import safety as foreign foods and foreign goods become a staple of American life.

"U.S. imports are large and growing rapidly. American consumers like the variety and abundance of consumer goods and the competitive prices that result from global trade," he said. "The American people, however, have reasonable expectations that the products they buy for their families will be safe. We can and must do more to honor that trust."

COMING MONDAY: A look at one producer who works to ensure the safety of the products headed to places such as his hometown of Dallas.

Consumer groups, government oversight agencies and two congressional bills call for several actions to improve import food safety. Many focus on greatly increasing the percentage of food inspected before it gets onto the kitchen table, whether at U.S. ports of entry or in exporting countries. Among the measures being pushed:

• A $450 million annual increase in the budget of the Food and Drug Administration

• A single food safety agency, rather than parallel inspections by the FDA (agriculture, seafood, processed foods) and the USDA (meat, poultry, some egg products)

•I mport user fees to defray the costs of greater vigilance and more inspections

• Country-of-origin labeling for all meat, seafood and agricultural goods

• Restriction of high-risk goods to ports of entry where the FDA has its own testing labs

• Mandatory in-country inspections by U.S. officials or certified third parties


The Bush administration's "Import Safety Action Plan," presented in November, calls for measures that would not increase the FDA's current budget. It is a "risk-based" model that focuses resources on problematic foods. The administration warned that "physically inspecting every item would bring international trade to a standstill." It proposes:

• Requiring producers of high-risk foods to certify that their products meet FDA standards

• Publicizing certified producers so consumers can make better decisions

• Improving communication among government agencies and with foreign governments so better decisions are made on whether to clear import shipments

• Increasing the number of U.S. inspectors in foreign countries and training for foreign inspection agencies

• Toughening safety and inspections standards where needed

• Strengthening penalties against food safety violators, making them more likely to comply

SOURCES: Public Citizen; Consumers Union; U.S. Congress; White House press office




Lawmakers nix plan to dye raw milk

Agriculture officials wanted to dye the milk gray to ward off human drinkers.

Associated Press
A plan to make raw milk more
palatable – at least to animals – earned the backing of a House
committee Tuesday, as lawmakers rebuffed a state Board of Agriculture
plan that would have required the product to be dyed gray.

The House
Health Committee approved a plan requiring unprocessed milk, known as
raw milk, sold in-state to be labeled as not for human consumption.

Unlike the milk sold at grocery stores, raw milk is unpasteurized.

health officials say raw milk may contain harmful bacteria that's
unsafe for children. But the product's supporters say it contains
immune system-boosters that are otherwise killed in the pasteurization

N.C. law prohibits the sale of raw milk for human
consumption, but the product can be sold for pets and animal use. Raw
milk advocates say many people, including farmers, zookeepers and pet
owners, feed their animals raw milk.

But because the products
look similar, the N.C. Board of Agriculture in September passed a rule
requiring all raw milk sold in-state – and therefore not for human use
– to be dyed charcoal. The discoloration would discourage children from
consuming it accidentally, said Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.

don't want to make this milk attractive to children,” Troxler said. “So
with red, that could mean strawberry. The charcoal seemed to be a color
that fit.”

But farmers and natural food advocates were appalled by the dyeing mandate.

said there are no suitable organic dyes that can be added to the
natural product, and their animals wouldn't want to go near a
dirty-looking product, anyway.

“I don't know how many animals
will actually consume black milk,” said raw milk advocate Ruth Ann
Foster, who lives in Greensboro and serves her rescued white poodle raw
milk. “I don't think my dog will.”

The milk advocates' protests opened the door for the legislature to intervene.

Tuesday, the House panel approved a plan from Rep. Pricey Harrison,
D-Guilford, that would require two warning labels to be placed on all
raw milk containers. One would warn that the product is not to be
consumed by people, while the other would explain that it's illegal to
sell raw milk for human consumption in North Carolina.

Charlotte Local News | Charlotte Observer




Raw Milk Soiree | Lancaster Farming
Raw Milk Soiree
Submitted by Editor on Fri, 06/27/2008 - 11:07am.

Tracy Sutton
Northern Editor

BETHESDA, Md. — Mark Nolt has a friend in Lyn Rales. The Washington-area socialite threw a legal defense fundraiser for the embattled Mennonite dairyman who is appealing charges levied against him for selling raw milk without a permit. Last Saturday Rales held a soiree to “spread a little sunshine” for the Nolt family at her Bethesda home and raised $12,000.

It began with a college term paper. Several years ago Rale’s son Matt took an interest in sustainable agriculture while a student at Middlebury College in Vermont. He interviewed Nolt and wound up coming to Pennsylvania to shadow Nolt on his farm. From there a friendship blossomed and Nolt found a new community of customers for his products in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. A collective of neighbors still gets together and does runs to the Cumberland County, Pa. farm for raw milk, cheese, and butter. At thanksgiving, Matt sells turkeys for Nolt out of his pickup truck in the front yard.

Lyn Rales doesn’t understand the fuss about raw milk. “I’m informed, I read about things.” It isn’t as if Mark Nolt is pushing raw milk upon her. “I make an effort to go get it.” Rales asserted her confidence in the products she buys from Nolt. The farm is “clean as a whistle.”

What about those permits?

“The regulations are to help big farmers and hurt the small. It’s making it impossible for him to help his family.”

To Rales, the issue is about consumer choice. “If you can buy cigarettes, why not raw milk?”

Her guest Kristin Golden concurred. “People don’t feel confident in the food they buy.” They want to buy direct from the farm.

“Ultimately, it’s a freedom of food choice,” said invited guest speaker, Virginia farmer Joel Salatin. What’s needed is “an emancipation proclamation for food.” He waved toward the room filled with smartly dressed Washingtonians and a smattering of Mennonite dairy farmers enjoying an artful buffet of local farm produce and jugs of cold raw milk. “This is the Underground Railroad. The government needs to get out of the way.”

Amos Miller, a dairyman who sells raw milk and friend of Nolt’s from Bird-in-Hand, Pa. came to support the event. Miller said he is not in favor of the permit system for raw milk, because it could “open the door to big markets” who wouldn’t sell a natural, grass-fed product. He thinks farmers should focus on educating consumers.

Miller’s concerns with the current permit system are: “One, you can’t sell raw milk yogurt and kefir. Two, you can’t sell across state lines.” Personally, he understands Nolt’s civil disobedience argument that if you don’t agree with the tenets of the permit system, and refuse to sign it, then you can’t be a hypocrite. To sign the permit and then only abide by certain aspects of it is “not honest,” Miller said.

The fundraiser was held on a sunny afternoon in Rale’s expansive garden, itself a small-scale experiment in sustainable backyard farming. Guests wandered past raised vegetable beds while Rale’s chickens fluttered around their feet. Doris Dixon, a friend of Rale’s described how Rale had purchased the home next door to expand her garden and make room for the chickens, who clearly enjoy a free-range lifestyle (on some pricey suburban real estate). “When the gardener turns over the soil, they just come running,” exclaimed Dixon.

Farmer friends of Nolt donated food for the fundraiser. Miller brought eggnog and Wilmer Newswanger brought a large assortment of raw milk cheeses.

The event featured two notable speakers on sustainable agriculture, Joel Salatin, recent author of “Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal,” who is also widely known as the farmer featured in Michael Pollan’s best seller “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and Sally Fallon, founder of the Weston Price Foundation, a natural foods nonprofit. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, an offshoot of the Weston Price Foundation, is representing Nolt in his appeal.

Fallon said the fact that the state is “coming after” Nolt is a “testament to how popular raw milk is.” She described the permit system as “arbitrary.”

“We’re going to look back at this era and wonder how we could be so backwards,” said Fallon. “It’s irrational not to sell directly to the public.”
Matt Rales, speaking of his friend Nolt, told the crowd, “Mark doesn’t want help from anybody. We should appreciate a guy who isn’t looking for a handout. He’s bringing us this great food.”

Rales currently works at Polyface Farms, Salatin’s farm in the Shenandoah valley and introduced his boss.

Salatin, a self-described “Christian-Libertarian-Environmentalist-Capitalist” framed the debate as one of personal liberties. “The authority to license means only the greater can license the lesser. We are bowing to the government about what we feed ourselves.”

“Food safety is a matter of faith,” exorted Salatin. “Will you put your faith in your neighbor? Or in a nameless, faceless government agency?”

To sell raw milk legally in Pennsylvania by permit, farmers must allow on-farm inspections by the state. Chris Ryder, a spokesman for the PDA, when asked to comment on Nolt’s appeal and continued refusal to obtain a permit, said that the state believes “the charges are accurate and justified.”

Meanwhile, Nolt’s neighbors, Wilmer and Arlene Newswanger stood in for Nolt at the fundraiser. Wilmer Newswanger said Nolt was “overwhelmed right now” but very appreciative of the group’s efforts.




The Republican-American The case for a raw-food diet
Thursday, June 26, 2008 10:06 AM EDT

The case for a raw-food diet

By Kim Pierce The Dallas Morning News
A raw-food diet — basically raw fruits, vegetables and whole grains — has plenty of advocates, but whether it's the right choice for a cancer patient is open to question.

In a matter of seconds, you can find numerous testimonials online about its health benefits. However, finding peer-reviewed scientific studies, much less specific research on raw foods and cancer, is harder.

"There are only a couple dozen studies worldwide on relationships between raw-foods diets and anything else," says Suzanne Havala Hobbs, a dietitian with a special interest in vegetarian nutrition who has tracked the raw-foods movement. She knows of no studies on raw foods and cancer.

"What you could say about a raw-foods diet and cancer risk or cancer treatment could be something that's extrapolated and kind of surmised," she says, "based upon the body of evidence related to diet and cancer in general."

Still, Hobbs, who's on the faculty in the school of public health at the University of North Carolina, is far from dismissive.

"I am fascinated by some of the claims made by raw foodists," she says. "But I'm cautious about them, as well. I am sympathetic and skeptical at the same time."

When she conducted what she calls a small, low-tech study in 2005 on raw-food attitudes, practices and beliefs, the top reason for adopting a raw-food diet was health, especially protection from disease and faster healing.

Going raw

A raw-food diet is a diet made up of raw fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and grains — organic, if possible — that excludes meat, dairy and fish. In addition, foods are heated to no more than 116F. Raw foodists say that food enzymes, sometimes more broadly characterized as the "life force" or energy in food, are destroyed when subjected to higher heat. They believe these enzymes improve digestion and fight disease. They also say that cooking produces harmful substances.

Nutrition experts reject the enzyme theory. As registered dietitian Karen Schroeder notes in an online article from EBSCO Publishing, humans use their body's enzymes, not enzymes from plants, to break down foods. Digestion also destroys plant enzymes.

She goes on to say that acrylamide and heterocyclic amines are possible carcinogens formed in high-heat cooking, but "neither the American Cancer Society nor the National Cancer Institute goes so far as to recommend a raw food diet to reduce the risk of cancer from these chemicals." NCI does note on its Web site that HCAs are not monitored and that there are no guidelines about limits.

A strict raw-food diet also can result in deficiencies of calcium, iron, B-12 and protein. But, at least in the case of calcium, it's unclear what effect this has on health. A small 2005 study at Washington University found that while raw-food vegetarians had lower bone mass than a control group on a typical American diet, their bone turnover was normal.

Tweaking the diet

"I think there's good evidence to say, 'Yes, some raw foods, like salads, are a good thing,"' says Lawrence Kushi, associate director for etiology and prevention research at Kaiser Permanente in Northern California. "A lot of other foods benefit from being cooked."

Kushi says that water-soluble vitamins, such as C and B, are leached out of foods when cooked. But sautéing foods in a little oil improves the body's uptake of fat-soluble nutrients such as the carotenoids found in tomatoes, greens, and orange fruits and vegetables. "Having a variety of preparations is the way to go," he says.

Even among people who support the raw-foods approach, compliance may not be 100 percent. Jeannette Wright, 44, who manages her husband's chiropractic office in Dallas, adhered to a strict raw-foods diet for three years.

"The first year, I felt better," she says. "The second year, I was stable. By the third year, my nails were brittle, my hair thinned and I didn't have strength. My feeling at the time was that I was not getting enough protein. When I added fish, my nails got better, I got stronger and my hair got thicker." Now, she says, she eats raw foods 80 percent to 90 percent of the time.




A recent NPR story on raw milk.