Sunday, May 13, 2007

Weekend Update

What were you thinking, America?

What were you thinking when you outsourced food--and pet food--ingredients to the Chinese? Perhaps you didn't figure the Chinese were spiking the nitrogen content of food ingredients with a chemical that's otherwise used to make resins for laminated floorboards, fire retardents for foam cushions and plastic dinner ware?

The product in question is, of course, melamine, which every dog and cat owner now knows is the likely culprit behind hundreds, perhaps thousands of pet deaths that began to come to light in March and resulted in the recall of some 5,300 pet food products.

Melamine actually is a rather old chemical compound. Along with a related chemical, cyanuric acid, it is known to cause renal failure after prolonged injestion. Cyanuric acid is used to stabilize chlorine in swimming pools.

It appears the Chinese were using melamine and cyanuric acid to artificially boost the nitrogen content of foods. Once it was detected in pet food, authorities started to find it in wheat gluten, corn gluten and rice gluten, which turned up in hog feed, chicken feed and fish feed.

You may have heard of putting nitrogen fertilizer on your lawn to make it greener. In the food world, nitrogen translates as "protein." But it's really a scam. There's nothing nutritious about melamine or cyanuric acid. The nitrogen molecules pass through the intestines and into the blood stream before they can be digested. That's how they end up in the kidneys.

The New York Times quoted one Chinese chemical producer as saying that companies there for years have been putting cyanuric acid in animal feed as a cheap way to jack up the nitrogen content and fetch higher prices.

As the melamine scandal worsened day by day, outraged Americans woke up to the fact that our chief enforcer of food quality, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, has no authority to ban or recall tainted foods. That's right, the government we pay for with tax dollars has arranged it so that manufacturers need remove dangerous foods only when they are good and ready.

Isn't it nice to know that the same people who profit from potentially deadly food products, and who now look to the nitrogen-boosting Chinese to supply cheap ingredients, get to decide which foods are suitable for public consumption?

The dire absurdity of this paradox apparently struck even the business-boosting Bush administration as unacceptable. They quickly appointed a "food safety czar" for the Food and Drug Administration. Which makes you wonder why the agency responsible for food safety suddenly needs a person to be responsible for food safety.

But we were all comforted to hear the feds announce that the melamine in question really poses no danger to humans.


On the subject of animal feed, and as another example of the mind-boggling twists and turns in the global food web, authorities in Iowa are looking at the residues left over from turning corn into ethanol as a way to generate electricity and feed cattle.

You'll remember that the ramping up of ethanol production from corn to fuel automobiles has helped double the price of corn and made tortillas too expensive for many Mexicans. Well, Iowans apparently have now developed a way to turn the ethanol leavings into pellets that could potentially substitute for the use of coal to generate electricity and stand in as a feed for fattening beef cattle.

Question: has anyone discussed this with the cattle, or have they completely lost their taste for regular old grass?


Monsanto, in its quest to corner the world market on food seed, suffered another setback. The European Patent Office revoked the food giant's patent on genetically modified soybeans.

The patent was due to expire soon anywhere. But observers see the European rebuke of Monsanto as setting a potentially important precedent.

Last week, it was a federal judge in California who ordered a halt to Monsanto's sale of gene-mutant alfalfa, pending a federal study of the affects on organic and conventional crops.


Apparently the melamine scare has not put Americans off food products from China.

It isn't enough that we've exported our manufacturing jobs and put our trade balance in hock to the Chinese. Now our own federal government is considering allowing chickens raised, butchered and cooked in China to be sold here in the United States.

This falls under the rubric of fair international trade. And the best part is, there are no regulations that require poultry to be labeled as to country of origin.

As much as we like Chinese food--even when we can't read the menu--we consider this a possible source of indegestion.


On the seafood watch, a landmark agreement between 21 countries would potentially ban bottom trawling for fish in the South Pacific beginning in September.

Bottom trawling lays waste to the ocean floor, destroying coral reefs and sealife habitat. The agreement concerns about 25 percent of the world's oceans.

The only catch is, the restrictions are completely voluntary (like recalling food tainted with melamine). Countries who are members of the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization -- including the U.S., New Zealand, China, Russia, France-- would have to be trusted to uphold the agreement.

But they would, right?

Elsewhere in the world of fish, Alice Waters, the intrepid leader of eating locally grown foods, is heading a group of 200 chefs from 33 states calling on the federal government to save native American wild salmon.

This follows last year's federal shutdown of 88% of commercial salmon fishing along 700 miles of coastline in California and Oregon, deemed necessary to allow salmon to spawn in the 260-mile Klamath River, where salmon compete for water with farmers, utility companies and Indian tribes.

Chefs are calling salmon American's last wild meat. And with salmon farming operations potentially being shut down over pollution and disease concerns, we couldn't agree more.

But some terrestrials are less enthusiastic about helping fish when it could mean dismantling dams that make hydro-electric power, which means less pollution, which means people can continue their consumptive ways without worrying so much about contributing to global warming.

Suddenly that salmon fillet on your plate is looking a little more complicated, no?


From our Grapes of Wrath department, a cautionary tale about those pre-packaged fruit salads you like because they're so convenient.

A writer for an alternative publication in Portland, Oregon, spent a few days in a Del Monte produce plant where she found immigrant workers toiling in near-freezing temperatures, turning melons and pineapples into salads for distribution.

Fruit and vegetables originate from California, Costa Rica, Guatemala. Turns out the workers who process the produce into edibles come from equally distant locations. It's all part of the global economy (again).

"It's close to freezing cold inside this football-field-sized warehouse in North Portland. I know because I've spent three days working at the plant, and on a recent Friday at 8 am the thermometer registers 36 degrees Fahrenheit," writes Beth Slovic in the Willamette Week Online. "I'm regretting not having brought a hat to wear under my green hairnet. I can see my own breath and the respiration of the other 24 workers beginning their eight-hour shifts."

Slovic continues: "A highly unpleasant odor, which will cling to my jacket for days, hangs in the air. It's the smell of freshly diced onions tinged with chlorine, and my eyes sting from the fumes. It's so loud inside the plant that, once production is fully under way, many of the workers will resort to flinging bits of fruit and vegetable at each other to catch someone's attention. When all of the conveyor belts, washing machines and industrial-strength produce dryers are on, it sounds as if a plane were about to take off overhead...."

To read the complete article, go here.


Finally, we are completely enchanted by the inter-connected world of food blogging and the many unexpected places it takes us. A few words from us on the subject of liver recently were enough to spark an interest on the part of Stephen at the Stephen Cooks, blog. Stephen, in turn, drew inspiration from a cook in Singapore, the result being an Asian stir fry we could not have imagined.

Go here to read Stephen's post.


christine (myplateoryours) said...

One word applies to most of these news tidbits: shocking. So why am I not shocked, but only saddened?

Ed Bruske said...

Culling the news is, indeed, a sad chore. For those of us who tend to see the dark side, it seems only to get worse, not better. On the bright side, John Stewart?