Sunday, January 27, 2008

Weekend Update

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.

Bon appetit....


David Hall said...

All very interesting Ed - and disturbing. You have some good insights, makes you think twice and all that which is a good thing.


Ali said...

Since adopting this strategy, I almost always have my grocery bags with me. Immediately upon unpacking them from a shopping excursion, I fold them up and shove them all in one bag, then hang that bag from the primary exit door handle. Not pretty, but effective.


gracie said...

I too struggled with forgetting my bags. My strategy is similar to Ali's, but after shopping, I put the empty bags back in the trunk of my car.

TopVeg said...

Glad to see the school children are lobbying for good food. Perhaps that will be the driver ?

Mimi said...

The fish article is pretty disturbing. The big problem is that the fish we love to eat are often at the top of the food chain and have been accumulating all of the heavy metals from the fish they eat. So... when you think about it, we are at the top of the food chain and we are accumulating the heavy metals from all of the food we eat...yikes!

weekend farmer said...

Nice blog Ed! I just found it and enjoyed reading it. I had the same reaction when I saw the comparison of food across the makes you feel sick when you see all the packaged, processed food we eat in the western part of the world. I guess the rat race makes us busy and no time to slow down for a slow cooked meal...such a pity! Each of us can make a difference I guess. I enjoyed the blog on your work with the DC children as well. THANK YOU for making that difference!

Nicole said...

I do have a hard time remembering to bring my canvas bags to the store when I go. This also has me wondering about a "greener" way to scoop my cats' litter boxes... that is pretty much the only reason why I even accumulate plastic bags at the grocery store.

oceana said...

Thanks for your post on the New York Time’s local story about mercury in sushi. Oceana, an international marine conservation organization, published an even more extensive national study on mercury levels in fresh tuna, swordfish and tilapia from supermarkets, and tuna and mackerel from sushi restaurants. The good news is that mackerel and tilapia are low-mercury fish and can be eaten safely. The bad news is that swordfish and fresh tuna have high levels of mercury, and consumers should be leery.

The Food and Drug Administration has recommended that women of childbearing age and children completely avoid eating swordfish and limit consumption of fresh tuna to six ounces or less a week. Even if people are familiar with this advice concerning mercury, they probably don’t readily carry it while dining out or shopping for their weekly groceries. Additionally, Oceana’s study found that 87 percent of seafood counter attendants couldn’t provide shoppers with the FDA warning, so you shouldn’t rely on them to give you the government advice either.

Posting signs in grocery stores would provide this crucial information in a way that is accessible and easily understood. Major grocery companies like Kroger, Safeway and Albertsons are posting the FDA advice at their seafood counters. Still other grocers, like Costco, Publix and A&P, refuse to post a sign and give this important information to their customers. There is no reason to cut seafood totally out of your diet, but it is important to know what kinds of fish are potentially harmful and how to avoid them. Check out Oceana’s new report and get the full story.

Ed Bruske said...

David, I find there is a tremendous overload of information out there where the food movement is concerned. I feel I'm barely scatching the surface, and it gives me a headache.

Ali, I think it's just out of habit that I walk out the door without my new shopping bags. Hard habit to break. I walk into the store and kick myself. But I'm actually getting better. I just need to slow down.

Gracie, my wife has hung all our new shopping bags on the handle to the pantry door. There always staring me in the face. Still, I forget sometimes.

TV, I thought that was a fascinating item out of Baltimore, the kids agitating for better food. It deserves more coverage in the traditional media.

Mimi, I think the story about mercury in fish is much worse than we think, yet people are so blase about it. The irony is, the contamination is highest in fish like tuna, and we're eating them like there's no tomorrow.

WF, I'm glad you found this blog. It never ceases to amaze me how much impact we humans can have on the planet and all it's other creatures. We're relatively small, but we now have the technology to turn the whole place on its ear.

Nicole, my wife suggested keeping the shopping bags in the car trunk. I'd probably forge them there, too. But at least they'd be nearby for those times I took the car to the store. We really should be walking or taking public transportation. Better, yet, there's a Harris Teeter's about to open just a couple of blocks from us.