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.
And now, here's a rundown of a few important stories that escaped the Hunter survey's radar.
Prices fetched by Midwestern agricultural land hit record heights, with choice parcels of Iowa breaking $20,000 an acre thanks in part to the market for corn-based ethanol. Today farmers can essentially grow bushels of gasoline in their cornfields. But the writing is on the wall for the industry: Political support for corn-based ethanol subsidies is crumbling, and $6 billion in subsidies are in danger of being dropped from next year's farm bill.
Dramas over biotechnology provided no shortage of important headlines this year. Despite overwhelming opposition from public comments, agency scientists and even a few pesky court rulings, USDA and FDA only increased their efforts to improve the bottom lines of genetically modified crop companies. Such agency advocacy included the approval of modified alfalfa and sugar beets, both of which have the potential to destroy important sectors of the organic industry.
Agency support for biotech grew even as evidence came to light of the health and environmental hazards of genetically modified crops. Several studies found that consumption of genetically modified corn and soybeans causes significant organ disruptions in rats and mice. And there is so much evidence that Monsanto's rootworm-resistant corn plant is breeding corn-resistant rootworms, you'd think former Monsanto lawyers are writing the USDA's regulations. Which they are.
Recent surveys have shown that more than 90 percent of Americans want labels on their food indicating whether it includes genetically modified ingredients. I wouldn't be surprised if in 2012 this vast majority will finally get its wish. A broad coalition of organizations, lead by the Center for Food Safety, has launched Just Label It, a campaign aiming to either convince the FDA to mandate labeling or convince President Obama to make the agency do it. The campaign has momentum, public support and an election year on its side.
This year saw the food police empowered by the FDA's Food Modernization Act, and they repeatedly clashed with locavores. The Rawesome food-buying club was raided and shut down by federal and Los Angeles County officials for selling raw milk, a crime that has been prosecuted in various ways around the nation. And Southern Nevada officials in November shut down a "farm to table" dinner at a Community Supported Agriculture farm for a number of supposed food safety infractions.
Regulations designed to address the profit-chasing ways of big food corporations don't leave much room for small farmers and consumers. Producers are being strangled by red tape, while the people looking to buy their food can't do so without breaking some law.
This kind of meddling in our mouths won't fly in America. Expect such clashes to continue until food safety laws are modified to allow small-scale, local agriculture to thrive in peace, unmolested by bureaucrats.