Sunday, February 24, 2008

Weekend Update

By now everyone is aware that an undercover video of downer cows being dragged to slaughter in Southern California has led to the largest recall of beef in the nation's history--143 million pounds.

Almost as shocking as the images of workers using forklifts, electric prods and pressurized water jets to motivate incapacitated cows was the news that much of the beef was intended for the school lunch program. It's just now becoming clear how much beef was being directed to children, and that much of it has already been eaten.

News reports on local public radio here in the District of Columbia environs revealed that school districts were sending letters home to parents informing them that the recalled beef in question had already been served in school lunches. To date, no health problems among the affected children had surfaced, according to these reports.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture breaks down the distribution of the recalled beef thusly: 50.3 million lbs were distributed as part of the national school lunch program; of that, 19.6 million were consumed; 15.2 million are identified and on hold; and 15.5million still being traced. Marion Nestle at her What to Eat blog does the math at asks, What happened to the other 93 million pounds of beef?

The American Meat Institute calls the recall much ado about very little, and rejects any implication that tighter regulation of the beef industry is needed.

"Claims that we are not regulated heavily enough or that inspection oversight is lacking are simply outrageous," Mark Dopp, the AMI's senior vice president of regulatory affairs, said in a statement. "We benefit from the oversight we receive. We will not let a video from what appears to have been a tragic anomaly stand as the poster child for our industry. "

Wow. Some anomoly.


While we're getting downer beef out of school lunches, we might also look at ways to eliminate some of the food waste.

Alfred University outside Corning, NY, is doing just that by doing away with food trays in school dining rooms.

Food trays?

It's commonly accepted that about 30 percent of all food in this country is wasted, sent to the landfill. Schools are now learning that by not offering food trays, students take less food and consequently put less in the trash. An environmental student group at Alfred U. looked at what other schools had done along these lines and convinced the school to give it a try. Students returned from holiday break this year to find no more trays in the dining halls.

Two separate tests on the Alfred U. campus show that by not offering food trays, food and beverage waste was reduced by 30 percent, and sometimes up to 50 percent.

“At Alfred University, that equates to approximately 1,000 pounds of solid waste and 112 gallons of liquid waste on a weekly basis,” said John Dietrich, director of dining services. “That’s a significant amount of waste – more than 15 tons a year in solid waste – that we can keep from going into the county landfill.”

Students still have the "all-you-can-eat" option, and additional silverware stations have been set up in the dining halls to accomodate the tray-less protocol.


Is junk food better if it's made with local ingredients? Some manufacturers apparently expect to cash in in on the locavore mania.

The British snack maker Walkers now is touting potato chips made exclusively with locally grown potatoes. To boost sales, it's come up with television ads showing a popular soccer player dancing in a potato field with British potato farmers.

"The British climate, with its wet weather, is ideal for growing potatoes," says a company spokesman. "The move to 100 per cent British-sourced potatoes is helping to reduce Walkers' food miles and impact on the environment."

We're waiting for the ads promoting locally grown high fructose corn syrup.


The Mulch blog does such interesting things with interactive maps. Our favorite was the one that locates the biggest recipients of U.S. crop subsidies, many of them in places like New York City and Key West. The latest pinpoints more than 350 editorials calling for reform in the Farm Bill. These are definitely not all in New York City and Key West.


Finally, we recently posted a recipe for lobster stew on grounds that lobster is a fairly sustainable seafood option, as opposed to, say, bluefin tuna or red snapper. But here comes news that the lobster catch in Maine last year suffered a 23 percent decline, and there are worries that American's favorite crustacean may be overfished.

Some years ago, while still reporting for the Washington Post, I wrote about possible threats to the Chesapeake Bay blue crab and was nearly mobbed by angry watermen. Well, two decades later and the blue crab is at historic lows in the Chesapeake Bay. Sometimes it pays to listen to the scientists.

Maine's recent lobster catch was the worst since 1997. And the federal government wants the lobster industry to do more to prevent right whales from getting caught in lobster gear.

In other words, hold the butter. Could be time for a serious reality check where our lobster is concerned.

Bon appetit...

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