Sunday, July 27, 2008

Weekend Update

With hundreds of people nationwide made ill and millions of dollars worth of tomato crop ruined, you may be wondering how it happens that our federal government is unable to trace the source of a salmonella outbreak.

In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration still isn't sure where the disease originated. After initially implicating tomatoes, it has now cleared tomatoes--we think--and says the culprit more likely is jalapenos, perhaps originating somewhere in Mexico.

Turns out we might have had a produce tracking system in place years ago but the corporate food interests succeeded--with some help from the Bush White House--in getting the idea shelved.

The Associated Press reports that industry groups complained that a bioterrorism proposal that would have required detailed tracking of food was opposed by food industry groups as too burdensome. Business groups met at least 10 times with the White House between March 2003 and March 2004, as the FDA regulations were under debate. Food industry lobbyists successfully blunted proposals using arguments familiar in other regulatory debates: The government's plans would saddle business with unnecessary and costly regulations.

"The FDA's strong proposed bioterrorism rules were significantly watered down before they became final," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. The private advocacy group obtained the White House meeting records under the Freedom of Information Act and provided them to the AP.

Participants in the meetings included companies and trade groups up and down the food chain, including Altria Group Inc. and Kraft Foods Inc., when Altria was Kraft's parent; The Kroger Co.; Safeway Inc.; ConAgra Foods Inc.; The Procter & Gamble Co.; the American Forest and Paper Association; the Polystyrene Packaging Council; the Glass Packaging Institute; the Cocoa Merchants' Association of America; the World Shipping Council; and the Food Marketing Institute.

"If the FDA had been given the resources and authority years ago that it requested to solve these kinds of problems, I think we would have solved this already," said William Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner.

Now lawmakers from Florida are proposing that tax payers compensate tomato growers for their losses.

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Monsanto, the giant chemical and seed company that also makes bovine growth hormone, is at it again. Now it has succeeded in getting Ohio to ban labels on milk containers that would tell consumers when the growth hormone might be present in the milk they buy.

The Organic Trade Organization recently filed suit against Ohio's director of agriculture to reverse a regulation that prohibits labeling stating when milk is free of the bovine growth hormone. Monsanto finds itself on the losing side of a consumer trend rejecting milk from cows treated with the hormone. The company has failed to persuade federal regulators to ban labels that indicate when milk is free of the hormone. Monsanto is now lobbying state officials with mixed results.

A similar labeling prohibition enacted by the agriculture director in Pennsylvania, for instance, was overturned earlier this year by the state's governor after an outpouring of protests from consumers and dairy farmers. But now Kansas, where Monsanto initially was turned back, is taking another look and Utah is considering a law similar to Ohio's, reports Sam Fromartz at the Chews Wise blog.

And then there was a study we recently noted in which researchers found that injecting cows with growth hormone could eliminate a significant portion of greenhouse gases by making dairies more efficient. But Scientific American disputes the findings, pointing out that the researchers involved are on the Monsanto payroll.

The study was conducted with a scientist, Roger Cady, who is also the growth hormone technical project manager for Monsanto. In addition, the lead scientist on the study, nutritional biochemist Dale Bauman of Cornell University, has been a paid consultant for Monsanto since the 1980s, though he declined to disclose how much the company has paid him over the years. He insists that Monsanto did not influence his decision to spend as much as $10,000 in university funds for this study.

Scientific American says the more important issue is dairy cow feed, typically a mix of corn and soy meal where growth hormone is used. The FDA already has disallowed any claims that cows injected with growth hormone can produce more milk from the same amount of feed. Researchers in Australia, meanwhile, have found that greenhouse emissions are reduced 50 percent when cows graze on grass.

*****

Wherever you look, government agents are in the pocket of Big Ag.

In Minnesota, for instance, legislators last year approved legislation that would provide grants to farmers who want to improve the efficiency of their operations. It was thought that the funds--called Livestock Investment Grants--would be directed toward small and even sustainably-minded farmers. But now that the state's agriculture department has got hold of it, it's become clear that the funds are going to benefit big confinement operations that have pollution problems.

The grant criteria developed by state agriculture officials favors operations with more animals. Advocates for rural development say that's just the opposite of what's needed: more farmers working the land in a sustainable fashion.

"The bottom line is, according to the (agriculture department's) profile, operations which expand dramatically are more likely to receive help through the Livestock Investment Grants program," writes Brian DeVore on the Minnesota Environmental Partnership blog."These proposals will likely be the largest grant requests, thus quickly draining the program’s budget. This makes second class citizens of family farmers using innovative, low cost, low-input systems."

*****

In case you needed any, here's more evidence why soft drinks need to be eliminated from public schools. Researchers in Texas have found that high-fructose corn syrup, the preferred sweetener in sodas and other processed foods, quickly becomes fat after being ingested.

Apparently, high fructose corn syrup manages to bypass the usual controls that the liver applies to other sweeteners, such as glucose. “It’s basically sneaking into the rock concert through the fence,” said Elizabeth Parks, associate professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. "The bottom line of this study is that fructose very quickly gets made into fat in the body.”

For the study, six people were given three different drinks. In one test, the breakfast drink was 100 percent glucose. In the second test, they drank half glucose and half fructose; and in the third, they drank 25 percent glucose and 75 percent fructose. The drinks were given at random, and neither the study subjects nor the evaluators were aware who was drinking what. The subjects ate a regular lunch about four hours later.

The researchers found that lipogenesis, the process by which sugars are turned into body fat, increased significantly when the study subjects drank the drinks with fructose. When fructose was given at breakfast, the body was more likely to store the fats eaten at lunch.

*****

If one Los Angeles city council member has her way, it's not just the soft drinks but all kinds of fast food that would be banned in a 32-square-mile area of the city.

Council Member Jan Perry is spearheading legislation that would ban new fast-food restaurants like McDonald's and KFC from opening in an area that already is home to some 400 fast-food restaurants suspected of contributing to a 30 percent obesity rate among adults who live there. The national obesity rate for adults is 25.6 percent.

"It's a good idea," particularly for children, local resident Rafael Escobar, 69, told the Wall Street Journal as he bit into a McDonald's sausage breakfast.

Local lawmakers compared the proposed ban on fast food joints to similar restrictions on liquor sales. But the restaurant industry isn't buying it. "We have a fundamental problem with government stepping in and treating restaurants as if they are engaged in activity that is at the root of the obesity epidemic," says Jot Condie, president of the California Restaurant Association.

But the trend seems to be swinging toward healthier restaurant eating. In New York City, a law kicked in earlier this year requiring fast-food restaurants to post calorie counts on the main menu right above the counter. San Francisco plans to implement a similar regulation later this year. In both cities, the restaurant industry is suing to try to block the calorie-disclosure rules.

Bon appetit....

2 comments:

Timmerman said...

Why is it the government's job to cooerce people into making healthier choices? I find it somewhat offensive to try and tell low income individuals who work long hours that fast food just shouldn't be an option for them.

No doubt the government has already done so much harm in subsidizing corn while imposing a quote on sugar imports, making HFCS the most prolific sweetener in American foods. I think we'd do far better to go after the government distortions already in the market that make hydrogenated soybean oils, HFCS, and other unhealthy subsidized bi-products so cheap, rather than an outright ban on fast foods.

Ed Bruske said...

Timmerman, at some point there has to be a community interest that kicks in, no? Is having a population of fat slobs who are physically incapacitated really in the national interest? Do we want to be paying the health care bills for all these people? Unfettered free enterprise at some point runs right off a cliff, it seems to me.