Seems like only a week ago we were reporting on tests that showed swordfish with dangerously high mercury levels being sold in supermarkets in California in Florida.
Now comes the New York Times causing a rumpus with a report that the tuna in sushi also tips the scales with mercury.
The Times conducted tests on sushi in 20 local stores and restaurants and found that at most of them a regular diet of just six pieces a week would exceed the levels considered acceptable by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Sushi from 5 of the 20 places had mercury levels so high that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could take legal action to remove the fish from the market.
The Times quoted an environmental and occupational medicine authority as saying, “No one should eat a meal of tuna with mercury levels like those found in the restaurant samples more than about once every three weeks."
Mercury in fish is nothing new. Large predatory fish at the top of the food chain, such as tuna and swordfish, are especially apt to accumulate large quantities of mercury in their body tissues. But it seems that vendors and consumers alike need to be reminded occasionally that mercury has not disappeared and remains a real hazard.
What gets lost in the mainstream reporting is that we do theoretically have a federal agency that could take legal action to remove tainted seafood from the market, but usually doesn't. That would be the FDA.
Diners seem to take the latest news with a yawn. “It’s something I enjoy,” said one woman who had just purchased 12 pieces of sushi at a store where the tuna had registered the second-highest mercury levels in the Time's research. “I don’t eat sushi every day, so in moderation is it really a problem? It sounds like one of those everyday things they tell us could be harmful. Last week, what was it, caffeine for pregnant women is harmful? That’s common sense.”
The mercury issue follows new concerns that some of our favorite seafood might not be around much longer. Bluefin tuna--yes, the same tuna that is so prized on sushi menus--seems to be headed for extinction. Here's a revealing segment from the CBS show 60 Minutes on how the latest fishery technologies--along with Japan's appetite for sushi and the absence of quota enforcement in Europe--are wiping out the bluefin.
Last year I participated in a focus group with the Monterey Bay Aquarium examining ways to spread the word about which seafood choices were the most environmentally sound. There was talk then about some sort of electronic method of dialing up sustainable seafood information. Apparently that day has arrived.
The Blue Ocean Institute has come out with something called "fish phone" that allows you to access a text message service that will tell you about the sustainability of your seafood choice while you are looking at the menu in a restaurant or standing in front of the seafood counter and the supermarket. Sam Fromartz, at the Chews Wise blog, has a run-down on the new technology as well as some helpful links to sustainable seafood resources.
Whole Foods is getting rid of plastic shopping bags. The country's largest purveyor of organic and natural foods says it discontinuing the use of plastic bags in all of its stores--including the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom--and plans to be plastic-free by Earth Day, April 22, 2008.
"More and more cities and countries are beginning to place serious restrictions on single-use plastic shopping bags since they don't break down in our landfills, can harm nature by clogging waterways and endangering wildlife, and litter our roadsides," read a Whole Foods press release. "Together with our shoppers, our gift to the planet this Earth Day will be reducing our environmental impact as we estimate we will keep 100 million new plastic grocery bags out of our environment between Earth Day and the end of this year alone."
The cities of San Francisco and Oakland already have banned plastic shopping bags and at least a dozen other jurisdictions are considering similar restrictions. But the alternative isn't necessarily paper bags, which consume millions of trees. Shoppers need to get used to the idea of bringing a re-usable bag--such as the canvass ones Whole Foods sells--on their shopping trips.
I've got plenty. But does anyone else have the same problem remembering to take them along?
If you are committed to local foods and live in the northerly latitudes, you may have noticed that most of the farmers markets closed months ago. So how does one go about eating local food in the dark days of winter?
More and more people are growing and preserving their own food. The New York Times gives us this encouraging look at how the natives on Martha's Vineyard use all kinds of strategies to put food by for the winter and work together to make food available through the dark days. The result is an alternative food economy that tourists would never know exists.
Dedicated consumers and dairymen are pressing the case for raw milk in Maryland, California and elsewhere. But there are few stories as compelling as that of Barbara and Steve Smith who have been under constant assault by agents of New York State after establishing a limited liability corporation to provide raw milk to about 120 shareholders of Meadowsweet Dairy.
The Smiths have been subject to repeated searches by state agriculture authorities, seizure of their milk products and threats of being shut down. But they and their shareholders argue that whatever sate law might say, consenting adults have a right to trade in raw milk amongst themselves. They believe that raw milk is healthier than the pasteurized variety and that the state should not interfere.
The Smith's were in court recently to argue for access to raw milk. No definitive rulings yet. The legal wrangling continues. You can read all about it at The Complete Patient.
Remember home economics class? I do. It was one of the traditional high school offerings back in the day. But home ec apparently went out of style long ago. It may be making a comeback.
More and more schools are building their own vegetable gardening and teaching students about the benefits of locally grown foods. School officials in the United Kingdom are pushing the envelope even further. They want to make cooking lessons compulsory for all students aged 11 to 14 by the year 2011.
The mandatory cooking classes--one class per week--are part of the British government's strategy to tackle childhood obesity. Schools Secretary Ed Balls is calling for the training of 800 cooking instructors.
"I think it is important to act now and maybe we should have acted earlier," Balls said. "It's not going to be just the technology of food, it will be how you can use simple ingredients, simple recipes, so that children and young people can be prepared for adult life."
And maybe live that long...
It's not just adults agitating for better food in schools. Kids are taking up the banner as well.
Students at a City Neighbors Charter School in Baltimore have decided that good food is a constitutional right. They've drawn up a Cafeteria Bill of Rights, saying they deserve to have fresh fruits and vegetables and more than one meal selection a day.
Recently a group of City Neighbors students got together with their social studies teacher and traveled to some neighboring schools to see if the food there was any better. What the students are most upset about is the quality of pre-made meals that are made off-premise and transported to the school. The students have taken samples of their food to school board meetings and have e-mailed the city's schools chief, arguing that they should have their own cafeteria that turns out decent meals.
"The mashed potatoes don't move, and the bread is sometimes moldy," Ethan Maszczenski, 12, told a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. To prove his point, a classmate peeled the plastic wrap off the top of a dish of mashed potatoes and turned the container upside down. Nothing happened. The potatoes were solid.