in the news: faux fiber; HR 875 threatening organic farming?

"Dietary Fibber: Don't be fooled by polydextrose and other fiber additives" -- Slate.com covers the rising popularity of faux-fiber surrogates in foods from yogurt to sugar cereals. Unsurprisingly, food companies are attempting to capitalize on the health benefits associated with dietary fiber (the kind found in fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains), and are using processed fiber-like additives (such as polydextrose and inulin), which the FDA has recently approved in more products. The article's author, Jacob Gershman, points out how food producers are responding to increasing consumer attention to labels, and responding accordingly -- thanks to new FDA regulations, these processed/synthesized fiber additives can be listed as dietary fiber on nutrition labels, despite the lack of clinical research supporting such a claim.

In other news, there has been concern raised in various quarters over House bill HR 875, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009. HR 875 appears to be a response to recent concerns over food safety and contamination, but critics argue that it will undermine small organic farms and sustainable agriculture. I haven't seen any major news outlets cover the bill yet, and the critics include everyone from small farm advocates to anti-federalist libertarians. A number of different people have pointed out that the husband of the sponsoring Rep, Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), works for Monsanto, and that this bill will benefit big agribusiness at the expense of small farmers. Take a look for yourself, and contact your rep to find out their position.


Industrial models for sustainable food?

Edible San Francisco last week ran an article arguing in favor of eating sustainable pork from the Midwest, rather than pigs raised locally in California ("The Sustainable Pork Smackdown: Midwest vs. Bay Area Five reasons to think hard about that pork on your fork. [part 1]," by Samin Nosrat). Citing improved texture and flavor, and greener, more efficient production, the article lays out some compelling reasons to rethink the mantra that local is always better. Clearly, there are still some kinks to work out in the effort to localize food production in the US, given a large territory with densely populated urban areas dispersed unevenly with regard to the agricultural productivity of the land. Sprawling metropolises have been made possible in inhospitable climates by the history of expanded transportation infrastructure, such as railroads and refrigerated trucks, making possible in turn the massive industrial food system we have today. From the Southwestern desert to the long winters of the Northeast, many major metropolitan areas of the US probably can't sustain themselves on food grown within a 100 mile radius.

But back to pork. The core of Nosrat's argument centers on the particular food system that produces smallscale organical pork. According to Paul Willis of Niman Ranch, for instance, it doesn't make sense to transport large amounts of grain from the Midwest to California, when you can ship less weight in the final meat product in the other direction. In addition, Midwestern sustainable pork benefits from a better developed agricultural infrastructure -- there are more slaughterhouses adapted to humane killing, and an entirely industry for using pig by-products efficiently -- from hides to manure. Finally, Nosrat contends that the quality and flavor of California-raised pork suffers from an "inconsistent diet," compared to pigs fed the corn and soybeans so endemic now to the Midwest.

There are some merits to challenging the local-at-all-costs directive that has become a prominent feature of the sustainable food movement -- while in California, we might be able to eat good food grown locally most of the year, many parts of the country would require a large population shift to eat that way in all seasons. Moreover, the Slow Food movement has advocated the value of local foodways -- the idea that some foods are local specialties and should be enjoyed even if exported, from single-origin chocolates to Parmigiano-Reggiano. Furthermore, in the long run, the issue of emissions and carbon footprints must be solved through alternative energy sources, not only by reducing travel and transit.

But when I hear efficiency emphasized as a key organizing principle in food production, I can't help but be reminded of the logic of mass production and industrialization. The Midwestern hog industry is efficient precisely because it has been developed according to industrial principles -- centralize, standardize, rationalize. Corn and soybeans have been streamlined and modified to produce the most bang for the least fertilizer, and genetically homogenized to minimize diversity. I appreciate the value of using all parts of a slaughtered animal, but I'm skeptical of the idea that pigs can't be raised to taste good under other conditions. When I belonged to a biodynamic CSA in Massachusetts, they raised pigs as part of the basic operations of the farm -- along with vegetables, herbs, flowers, cows, and chickens. The farm advocated integrating animal husbandry and agriculture, relying on a single system of humans, plants, and animals to produce good food. The pigs roamed in a generous pen, rootling in the soil and consuming not table scraps, but the pumpkins and squashes left in the field after harvest.

At the end of the article, Nosrat concedes that perhaps pigs aren't suited to being raised in California, and that we might have to consider eating fewer foods that can't be grown effectively where we live. I tend to agree with this logic, even if I'm hesitant to part with any of my favorite cured pig products. Then again, I have yet to be disappointed by anything made from Range Brother's heritage pigs, such as the phenomenal (but difficult to acquire) salumi from Boccalone. But I think it's important to keep in mind the value of decentralizing food production -- even if it's less efficient. Challenging agribusiness sometimes requires challenging the underlying logic of industrialization in the first place.


eating dangerously

recently, i've seen a number of lists online detailing potentially hazardous foods, from mercury-laden fish to pesticide-coated produce. i suspect that in small quantities, toxins in our food pose only minimal risk to us (at least, as fully-grown adults), though i do wonder about the cumulative effects of being exposed to so many different kinds of chemicals every day, from pesticides to PCBs, bisphenol A, and phthalates. From Sprig.com comes a list of the top "10 Most Dangerous Foods" that you might want to avoid, including farmed salmon, Chilean seabass, and conventionally-grown strawberries. there won't be anything surprising in their report to anyone already dedicated to eating locally grown, seasonal, and organic food -- but it is a good reminder of why it makes sense to avoid industrially-produced meat and produce, and to try to stick to what's in season (which, i'm afraid, means a lot of cabbage, kale, and potatoes all winter long!).

in somewhat more detail, FoodNews.org has published in-depth data on the levels of pesticides found in many common fruits and vegetables, in part to highlight which items you should buy organically if you can't afford to stop buying conventional produce altogether. i would argue, though, that at least much of the year you should be able to find many good fruits and vegetables available locally and in season, particularly at farmer's markets -- which are often pesticide-free if not certified organic. given the price of certifying farms under the USDA's current organic program, many farmers use organic techniques but can't label their produce officially so, which means it's always worth asking the farmer directly if you can.

vegetables in their season are more likely to taste better and not need to travel from as far away, even if that means no fresh tomatoes or asparagus in the winter months. i tend to solve this by stocking up on canned and dried goods, and focusing on dishes made with dried beans, cured meats and fishes, whole grains, and hardy winter vegetables (or fall vegetables that store well). fortunately, the one thing that does come into season this time of year is citrus, so enjoy all the blood oranges, tangerines, and grapefruit!