Year in Review: Food
Chewing on 2011
The rising cost of eating, medium-rare pork, nutrition guidelines and foodborne illness top the list of hot stories
Every December, the Hunter PR firm announces the results of a nationwide survey for the top 10 food news stories of the year. The list says as much about the media that writes the headlines as it does about the people who remember them.
The survey also investigates how Americans respond to the news, and it found that 61 percent of those surveyed changed their food habits based on news coverage. Forty-five percent were influenced to cook more at home. Who can blame them?
The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act was signed on Jan. 4, a milestone that took sixth place in the survey. The bill was in response to contamination events from previous years, but it set the tone for the year to come as well. The year's No. 1 story was the cantaloupe-borne Listeria that killed 30 people, while Cargill's 36-million-pound turkey recall took fourth.
The food safety bill has yet to stem the tide of factory-farm-related disease, but it's already created problems for small farmers, who are finding themselves overwhelmed with the morass of “Good Agricultural Practices” the bill mandates. County and university extension agents are scrambling to set up web pages to help deal with the surge of annoyed farmers trying to follow the new rules.
Perhaps the most baffling entry on the list was a food-safety issue of a different sort: The USDA lowered the internal temperature requirements for commercially served pork from 160 to 145 degrees. I doubt many members of the general public even own a meat thermometer for home cooking. They've probably been eating undercooked pork at home all along. But nonetheless, something about those 15 degrees really captivated the U.S.
What does it say about America that medium-rare pork is bigger news than tens of thousands of North Africans that starved this year from a harsh mix of drought and war? But then, most Africans probably wouldn't rank Michelle Obama's MyPlate nutritional guide as their No. 2 news story of the year, either. It's to be expected that people are most focused on what directly affects them.
The only place where North African starvation intersects with the survey is in position No. 3: record-breaking global food prices. And prices might just go higher. The world's population is growing, the land base isn't, speculation on food commodities is virtually unregulated, we're eating more meat and severe weather is wreaking havoc on crops with greater frequency than ever.
Half of the survey’s top 10 involved nutritional issues. This can be encouraging and frustrating. It's important to get people thinking about nutrition, and mandatory nutritional labeling on chain restaurant menus (No. 5) may encourage that. But we still have to apply critical thinking to the numbers, and even the numbers can be derailed by a faulty premise. MyPlate, for example, is smudged with corporate fingerprints, like the dairy industry's recommendation that adult humans should eat or drink cow milk products three times a day. In my view, this isn't nutritional guidance so much as political arm bending.
Two of the most envelope-pushing nutrition stories from the survey evolved from court cases. In slot No. 9, General Mills was sued for marketing sugary fruit leather as health food, when such formulations are in fact recipes for obesity.
In another child obesity story, which took No. 8 on the list, an Ohio court removed a 200-pound 8-year-old boy from his Cleveland home. The move was justified on the basis of imminent health risk, including diabetes, heart problems, and other forms of early death and disability. Poor nutrition, according to the court, can equal neglect.