The year’s biggest food news – much of it spooky – changed our personal habits.
Thursday, December 29, 2011
Every December for the last nine years, the Hunter PR firm has announced the results of a survey of Americans’ top 10 food news stories of the year. The list says as much about the media that writes the headlines as it does about the people who remember them.
The survey also investigated how Americans respond to the news, and found that 61 percent of those surveyed changed food habits based on news coverage. Forty-five percent were influenced to cook more at home.
The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act was signed on Jan. 4, a milestone that took sixth place on the survey. The bill was in response to previous contamination events, but it set the tone for the year to come as well. The year’s No. 1 story was the cantaloupe-borne listeria that killed 30 people. Cargill’s 36-million-pound turkey recall took fourth.
The food safety bill has yet to stem the tide of factory farm-borne disease, but it’s already created problems for small farmers, who are finding themselves overwhelmed with the so-called Good Agricultural Practices the bill mandates. County and university extension agents are scrambling to set up web pages to help deal with the new rules.
Perhaps the most baffling entry on the Hunter list was a food-safety issue of a different sort: The USDA lowered the internal temperature requirements for commercially served pork from 160 to 145 degrees. Perhaps the masses are anticipating moister pork loin whilst dining out. I doubt many even own a meat thermometer. They’ve probably been eating undercooked pork at home all along, but something about those 15 degrees captivated America.
What does it say about us that rarer pork is bigger news than North Africans starving from a harsh mix of drought and war? But then, most Africans probably wouldn’t rank Michelle Obama’s MyPlate nutritional guide as their No. 2 story of the year, either. The only place where North African starvation intersects with the list is in position three: record-breaking global food prices. And prices might just go higher. The world’s population is growing, the land base isn’t, speculation on food commodities is virtually unregulated, we’re eating more meat, and severe weather events are wreaking more frequent havoc on crops. Half of the top 10 involved nutritional issues. This can be encouraging and frustrating. It’s important to get people thinking about nutrition, and mandatory nutritional labeling of chain restaurant menus (No. 5), for example, may encourage that. But we still have to apply critical thinking to the numbers, and even understanding the numbers can be derailed by a faulty premise. MyPlate, for example, is smudged with corporate fingerprints, like the dairy industry’s recommendation that adults should consume cow milk products three times a day.
Two of the most envelope-pushing stories on the list evolved from court cases. In slot No. 9, General Mills is being sued for marketing sugary fruit leather as health food. No. 8 on the list: An Ohio court removed a 200-pound 8-year-old boy from his Cleveland home. The move was justified on the basis of health risk, including diabetes, heart problems, and other forms of early death and disability. Poor nutrition, according to the court, can equal neglect.
A few important stories escaped the Hunter survey’s radar. Prices fetched by Midwestern agricultural land hit record heights, with choice parts of Iowa breaking $20,000 an acre thanks in part to the market for corn-based ethanol. Today farmers can essentially grow bushels of gasoline in their cornfields. But the writing is on the wall for the industry: Political support for corn-based ethanol subsidies is crumbling, and $6 billion in subsidies are in danger of being dropped.
Dramas over biotechnology provided no shortage of headlines. Despite overwhelming opposition from public comments, agency scientists and even a few pesky court rulings, USDA and FDA only increased their efforts to improve the bottom lines of genetically modified (GM) crop companies. Such advocacy included the OK of GM alfalfa and sugar beets, which both have the potential to destroy key sectors of the organic industry.
Agency support for biotech grew even as several studies found that consumption of GM corn and soybeans causes significant organ disruptions in rats and mice. And there is so much evidence that Monsanto’s rootworm-resistant corn plant is breeding GM-corn-resistant rootworms, you’d think former Monsanto lawyers were writing the USDA’s regulations. Which they are.
Recent surveys have shown that more than 90 percent of Americans want labels on their food indicating whether it includes genetically modified ingredients. I wouldn’t be surprised if in 2012 this vast majority will finally get its wish. A broad coalition of organizations, lead by the Center for Food Safety, has launched Just Label It, a campaign aiming to either convince the FDA to mandate labeling, or convince President Obama to make the agency do it.
This year saw the food police empowered by FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act, and they clashed with locavores. The Rawesome food-buying club was shut down by federal and Los Angeles County officials for selling raw milk. Southern Nevada officials in November shut down a “farm to table” dinner at a Community Supported Agriculture farm for a number of supposed food safety infractions.
Regulations designed to address the profit-chasing ways of big food corporations don’t currently leave much room to operate for small farmers and consumers. Producers are being strangled by red tape, while the people looking to buy their food can’t without breaking some law.
This meddling in our mouths won’t fly in America. Expect clashes to continue until food laws are modified to allow small-scale, local agriculture to thrive in peace, unmolested by bureaucrats.