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Tag: "food"

Food News and Notes

[ 88 ] May 2, 2014 |

A few victual related items for your Friday afternoon:

1. The fad of celebrity chefs making “runway food” to promote the conspicuous consumption of rich people that then gets celebrated like the 80s is stupid. Is Anthony Bourdain turning into a sort of modern version of Robin Leach, at least for one form of consumption?

2. The rise of tequila (and

increasingly mezcal). This is a bit more of a celebratory post than I’d like because there are some real legitimate questions about the sustainability of the agave-based booze industry. As my wife is a scholar of Mexico specializing in Oaxaca, I spend a decent amount of time there when she is researching. So I’ve been lucky enough to explore mezcal a bit and the quality can be really outstanding. At this point I generally prefer it to tequila while drinking straight, although I tend to think the smokiness of it overwhelms cocktails. The cost however isn’t really all that cheap, even in Mexico, especially if we compare it to bourbon. The bottle I brought

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back last summer of a weird forest-based mezcal runs about $70 here and I got it for around $45 at a mezcal fair (at which you pay a $4 admission fee and then can taste all the mezcal you want). I assume the real difference is that it’s just much more expensive to produce because of the size of the plant, as opposed to the corn that makes up bourbon.

3. Agribusiness is now funding feature documentaries on the greatness and responsibility of the current agricultural system. Very convincing, I’m sure.

4. The bacon of Israel.

The Morally Correct Meat

[ 158 ] May 1, 2014 |

There may be many reasons not to eat meat, but there are no good reasons not to eat wild boars which are an invasive species tearing up southern and midwestern ecosystems like there’s no tomorrow.

Poultry Plants

[ 41 ] April 29, 2014 |

The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a federal complaint against conditions in an Alabama poultry factory.

Beatriz Navedo began to feel dizzy as she worked a processing line at the Wayne Farms poultry plant.

As the line zipped by, her chest also began to hurt. It was a heart attack.

But Navedo wasn’t sure what was happening. She just knew she needed help. She went to the plant’s nurse, but the nurse wouldn’t call the hospital, instead offering aspirin. Navedo’s daughter, who also works at the plant, left her shift early to take her mother to the hospital. Both women were punished by having points added to their employee files. Workers who accrue too many of these points are automatically fired.

It was another example of the abuse workers endure at the plant. Navedo had previously been threatened with firing for reporting on-the-job injuries. “We were promised a dream, but what we really got was a nightmare,” said Navedo, who no longer works at the plant. “I felt like a slave.”

The SPLC filed a complaint with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) today charging that workers at the Enterprise, Ala., plant have been forced to either endure unsafe and abusive conditions or lose their jobs.

OSHA is so underfunded and the meat industry so politically powerful that the largely immigrant workforce in these once unionized and now union-free jobs are treated like garbage, effectively bringing the dangerous working conditions of the Gilded Age of past America to the present and the outsourced dangerous factories of the developing world back to the United States.

It’s also worth remembering that every meal you eat has a labor history to it and if you are eating pretty much any meat, it’s extremely likely it is produced on the back on dangerous labor. That’s not to say don’t eat meat. It is to say that lending your voice to the fight for safe working conditions in food processing needs to be central to any food movement.

Chicken Production and Workplace Dangers

[ 14 ] April 18, 2014 |

I strongly recommend Michele Simon’s article on how Tyson Foods and the USDA have pushed forward drastic increases in chicken production line speeds that would increase the profits of meat companies at the cots of workers’ lives:

But let’s back up a bit. As Mother Jones magazine explained last year, “Currently, each factory-scale slaughterhouse has four USDA inspectors overseeing kill lines churning out up to 140 birds every minute. Under the USDA’s new plan, a single federal inspector would oversee lines killing as many as 175 birds per minute.”

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack defends the proposal under the guise of modernization (an industry code word for deregulation) and claims the new standard would actually reduce bacterial contamination. However, Food and Water Watch found numerous food safety problems with the USDA’s pilot project owing to company inspectors missing defects such as “feathers, lungs, oil glands, trachea and bile still on the carcass.”

The rule is especially terrible for workers, who already suffer unsafe conditions, resulting in serious injuries and even lifelong disabilities. Last year the Southern Poverty Law Center released a disturbing account of worker injuries and health problems in Alabama poultry slaughterhouses due to what it called “punishing” line speeds. Workers were made to “endure debilitating pain in their hands, gnarled fingers, chemical burns and respiratory problems.” Also, for many immigrant workers, as the law center put it, “Threats of deportation and firing are frequently used to keep them silent,” making the USDA’s attempt to spin the recent NIOSH data particularly disturbing.

Federal agencies appear to be ganging up on the USDA — and rightly so. The Government Accountability Office published a report last year criticizing the USDA’s plan on the basis of inadequate and faulty safety data. Of course, the chicken industry loves the proposal. In fact, the National Chicken Council would prefer not having any limits on line speeds at all.

The Agricultre Department basically operates as the tool of agribusiness at this point and that’s why the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and DOA are basically at war, with NIOSH’s director directly calling out the Food Safety Inspection Service for lying about its data. The meat we buy from the store not only comes from a system that treats animals awfully, it destroys the lives of workers as well. It’s awful hard for the government to do much when one agency is fighting to make these factories safe for workers and other is fighting to make them unsafe.

Wal-Mart Organics

[ 53 ] April 10, 2014 |

Wal-Mart is introducing a line of organic food at low prices:

Walmart plans to announce on Thursday that it is putting its muscle behind Wild Oats organic products, offering the label at prices that will undercut brand-name organic competitors by at least 25 percent.

The move by Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer and grocer, is likely to send shock waves through the organic market, in which an increasing number of food companies and retailers are seeking a toehold.

“We’re removing the premium associated with organic groceries,” said Jack L. Sinclair, executive vice president of Walmart U.S.’s grocery division. The Wild Oats organic products will be priced the same as similar nonorganic brand-name goods.

So good, right? Well, yes and no. One of the legitimate criticisms of organic food is that it is too pricey, making it something for the nation’s elite. This would help reduce that. But what is the real cost of cheaper organics? Who makes up the difference? It certainly isn’t Wal-Mart. Rather, we can expect Wal-Mart to do what it does on apparel and foreign-made consumer products–put the screws on producers to lower production costs. That means labor, especially in a food production system without the same kind of chemical inputs as conventional food. How will the workers producing this food be treated? The article is silent on this, as are most similar articles that focus on this issue from the perspective of consumers and to a lesser extent from the corporate view. The voices and views of labor are completely erased from the conversation. And if we know one thing from Wal-Mart, it’s that people at work will suffer to produce this food.

As Mark Bittman has argued, food costs need to be higher and wages need to go up in order to allow the poor to eat it. This of course means in part taking the world back from the retail corporate domination of the Wal-Marts, Targets, and Gaps. A tall order, but just offering cheaper organic food under an exploitative labor system is not much of an answer to our ailing food system.

Technology Will Save Us

[ 97 ] April 10, 2014 |

Since a cow isn’t an animal but an industrial product, I’m sure these plans will be totally successful and we will be able to continue on our ecologically destructive diet.

The Obama administration’s launch last month of a plan to curb methane emissions has given fresh relevance to climate-friendly technologies for cattle that range from dietary supplements and DNA gut tests to strap-on gas tanks.

Juan Tricarico, director of the Cow of the Future project at the Innovation Center for US Dairy, an Illinois research institute, said the initiative had boosted his quest to create the “star athlete” of the bovine world.

C-Lock, a South Dakota company, sells a feeding station that gives animals dietary supplements such as basil to cut methane production and measures the content of their breath by pulling it towards trace gas sensors with a vacuum.

Patrick Zimmerman, C-Lock’s founder, says prices start at $45,000 but stresses the economic benefits of improved efficiency. “Of the energy the animals eat, 3 to 15 per cent is lost as methane and that’s a waste,” he says.

At Argentina’s National Institute of Agricultural Technology, scientists have created backpacks that collect gas via tubes plugged into cows’ stomachs. A typical animal emits 250-300 litres of methane a day and researchers say this could be used to power a car or a refrigerator for a day, but Jorge Antonio Hilbert of the institute says the tanks’ use on a large scale is “totally improbable”.

Jonathan Gelbard of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, says: “Anyone who can come up with a cost-effective way to harness that methane is going to make a lot of money.”

Ilmi Granoff of the Overseas Development Institute said an alternative to controlling cattle emissions would be to cut the number of cows.

“Forget coal, Forget cars. The fastest way to address climate change would be to dramatically reduce the amount of meat people eat,” he said. “But that involves cultural preferences and they are difficult to touch.”

Where’s the pitchforks and torches! Someone needs to get that traitor Ilmi Granoff for suggesting something so crazy. He must be a food Luddite to suggest that we can’t engineer our way out of these problems!!

A Cultural Politics That Might Make Even Republicans Blanch

[ 398 ] April 6, 2014 |

Well, maybe not. But anyway, this is pretty gross:

Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen said on Friday it would prevent schools from offering special lunches to Muslim pupils in the 11 towns it won in local elections, saying such arrangements were contrary to France’s secular values.

France’s republic has a strict secular tradition enforceable by law, but faith-related demands have risen in recent years, especially from the country’s five-million-strong Muslim minority, the largest in Europe.

“We will not accept any religious demands in school menus,” Le Pen told RTL radio. “There is no reason for religion to enter the public sphere, that’s the law.”

The anti-immigrant National Front has consistently bemoaned the rising influence of Islam in French public life.

France has seen periodic controversies over schools that substitute beef or chicken for pork from menus to cater to Muslim children. Some of the FN’s new mayors have complained there are too many halal shops in their towns.

Nothing freaks me out like Muslims eating meat butchered in a fashion that affects me in no demonstrative way. I haven’t been that scared since I noted the lack of bacon at my town’s Jewish deli. What’s the deal with that? My entire identity is no more. I’m now voting for the most racist politicians I can find.

Also, I’m glad the French are so much more culturally and socially advanced than we Americans. I’m sure I won’t mention this the next time someone from France talks to me about how screwed up the U.S. is.

Gilded Age Food Poetry

[ 23 ] April 4, 2014 |

In Gilded Age cities, people were separated from meat production for the first time in American history. Even in early 19th century American cities, meat was produced nearby. Pork could be something of an exception (they didn’t call Cincinnati “Porkopolis” for nothing), but it salted so well that people were comfortable with it. Beef, chicken, lamb, etc.,–these were a lot more sketchy traveling long distances.

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Local butcheries could handle most of this but the explosively growing cities of the Gilded Age made this no longer possible for many. Packaged meats replaced fresh meat for millions. And that quality of that packaged meat, well, allow me to quote the New York Evening Post (although I do not have a date):

Mary had a little lamb
And when she saw it sicken
She shipped it off to Packingtown
And now it’s labeled chicken.

This reference is from Jeffrey Pilcher, Food in World History, p. 59

The Lives of Farmworkers

[ 105 ] March 7, 2014 |

California farmworkers remain nearly as exploited as fifty years ago. Filthy, substandard housing, a lack of water in the fields, pesticide poisoning, and poor sanitation define too much of their lives. These workers, migrant and beneath the radar of the Americans for whom they produce food, live horribly and it is unacceptable:

For California’s farmworkers, toiling all day in the brutal, sun-scorched fields is hard enough; the homes they return to each night are often in even worse conditions. Though the reforms won by previous generations have extended basic labor and safety protections to seasonal and immigrant farmworkers, many remain shut out of the right to decent accommodations.

According to a new report published by California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), the housing crisis in the agricultural workforce has worsened over the last generation. Despite the locavore fads and slow-food diets that have infused today’s farm-fresh produce with an air of glamour, as a workplace, the fields still echo the social marginalization and scandalous poverty that sparked the groundbreaking grape boycott of the late 1960s.

Don Villarejo, the longtime farmworker advocate who authored the report, tells In These Times that growers have “systematically” reduced investment in farmworker housing over the past 25 years in order to reduce overhead costs and to avoid the trouble of meeting state and federal regulations, which were established as part of a broader overhaul of agricultural labor, health and safety standards during the 1960s and 1980s. According to Villarejo, workers’ modern material circumstances are little improved from the old days of the Bracero system. That initiative—the precursor to our modern-day guestworker migrant program—became notorious for shunting laborers into spartan cabins, tents and other inhospitable dwellings on the farms themselves, beset with entrenched poverty and unhealthy, brutish conditions.

Even today, however, surveys and field reports have revealed that a large portion of workers are squeezed into essentially unlivable spaces. Some dilapidated apartments and trailer parks lack plumbing or kitchen facilities, much less any modicum of privacy; others are exposed to toxic pesticide contamination or fetid waste dumps. Workers can “live in a single-family dwelling with perhaps a dozen to 20 [people] crowding in,” Villarejo says. In some residences, “mattresses are lined up against the wall because during the daylight hours you could not be able to walk through the rooms owing to all the mattresses on the floor at that time.” Though many such dwellings house single male laborers, whole families with children are also known to live in crowded multiple-household units.

This is the “market-based” answer to the rickety labor camp of yore: Though workers are now renting from a landlord rather a farm owner, Villarejo says, “their conditions are certainly no better than they were in the kind of labor camps against which we were protesting back in the ‘60s and ‘70s about horrid living conditions.”

Terrible.

Our Generous Welfare State

[ 83 ] March 1, 2014 |

We have a very generous welfare state in this country. Amanda Marcotte:

After three decades of stasis, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is getting an overhaul, with a special emphasis on making it easier for parents to buy fresh produce for their children. Throughout most of its history, WIC has only covered what were perceived as “basic” foods: bread, eggs, milk, infant formula, canned tuna fish. In 2007 there was an interim policy that allowed parents to also buy fresh, frozen, or canned fruit or vegetables. This finalized policy goes beyond that, expanding the allowance for each child’s fresh produce purchases by 30 percent.

On paper, this sounds like a big deal and really good news, but it’s actually a depressing reminder of how small-minded this country has become when it comes to dealing with the problems of poverty and nutrition. As Reuters reports, that 30 percent produce expansion amounts to a measly $2 a month per kid. According to the cost-of-living index website Expatistan, in Indianapolis, that extra $2 will get you about a pound of apples (so, two or three apples) or a little more than a pound of tomatoes for the whole month. If you want to save money by going frozen, you’re not getting a whole lot more. You can get one bag of frozen peas or one bag of frozen corn, with a few coins left over for a small orange, if you’re lucky. Or perhaps you want one can of green beans with enough left over for a banana.

Really, isn’t that can of green beans going to show your 8 year old that the only way to live is off the state? I for one am very uncomfortable with the dependance and laziness that giving that child an extra banana every month is going to create.

Colonialist Labor Relations with Every Cup of Tetley

[ 48 ] February 14, 2014 |

The tea industry, as exploitative as most of the rest of the food industry. Turns out Tetley likes its labor extra exploited, as if the British still colonized India. Must add to the flavor.

The abusive conditions for APPL workers are consistent with conditions in the sector as a whole. They are rooted in the colonial origins of plantation life which continue to define the extremely hierarchical social structure, the compensation scheme, and the excessive power exercised by management.

The tea workers of Assam and the adjacent area of West Bengal come from two marginalized communities — Adivasis (indigenous people) and Dalits (the so-called “untouchable” caste) – whose ancestors were brought from central India by British planters. They remain trapped in the lowest employment positions on the plantation, where they are routinely treated as social inferiors. …

Workers live in cramped quarters with cracked walls and broken roofs. The failure to maintain latrines has turned some living areas into a network of cesspools. APPL is failing to provide adequate health care, both in respect of quality and access. Medical staff are poorly-trained and frequently absent. …

At one plantation, while the manager lauded the old and new mechanisms in place to ensure that pesticide spraying happened safely, and stressed the absence of any gaps, the research team watched a group of sprayers walk past his window with chemical tanks on their backs and no protective gear at all on their bodies.

Food and the Agency of the Poor

[ 452 ] February 11, 2014 |

Rich people concerned about the health of the poor are perplexed:

In inner cities and poor rural areas across the country, public health advocates have been working hard to turn around — neighborhoods where fresh produce is scarce, and greasy fast food abounds. In many cases, they’re converting dingy, cramped corner markets into lighter, brighter venues that offer fresh fruits and vegetables. In some cases, they’re building brand .

“The presumption is, if you build a store, people are going to come,” says , professor in the departments of sociology, anthropology and demography at Penn State University. To check that notion, he and colleagues from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine recently residents of one low-income community in Philadelphia before and after the opening of a glistening new supermarket brimming with fresh produce.

What they’re finding, Matthews says, is a bit surprising: “We don’t find any difference at all. … We see no effect of the store on fruit and vegetable consumption.”

What, you mean poor people have agency in the choices they make? You mean they may not want to eat kale? The clear answer is for rich people to tell people what they should put in their bodies even more stridently:

Alex Ortega, a public health researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, agrees that providing access to nutritious food is only the first step.

“The next part of the intervention is to create demand,” he says, “so the community wants to come to the store and buy healthy fruits and vegetables and go home and prepare those foods in a healthy way, without lots of fat, salt or sugar.”

An intervention! Exactly! We rich need to intervene more in the lives of the poor and tell them everything they are doing wrong. I have trouble seeing any down sides to this attitude…

Look, the diets of modern Americans are problematic. I am not saying that this is not something health professionals should be paying attention to. But let’s not obscure the connections between class and food. For the upwardly mobile of this country, local food, organic food, GMO-free food, backyard produced food–often at high prices–these are signs of social status. I can go to the farmers’ market and buy some greens right now if I want to pay a lot to do so. The farmer gets some money and this is good on a number of levels. I indeed want to support this when I can. Also, I get to look cool with my green canvas bag and see some other people of my socioeconomic status. If I was single, I might even strike up a conversation with someone that could lead to a date. Maybe I will see some fashion I want to emulate. If it was summer, all the yuppies would bring their designer dogs to the market to show off to the other rich white people. (This is a real thing at the big Saturday farmers market in Providence. I always see breeds I’ve never seen before. It cracks me up every time).

So while there are health problems related to food in America, let’s also remember that telling poor people what to eat is also just another episode in a history of rich people in this nation telling poor people what to do, a process constantly shifting as social and moral norms among the upper classes change over time. And look, Doritos and Coke are tasty products. People like fat and salt. Throwing a bunch of cauliflower in front of the poor and telling them it is good for them is not going to change their behavior. They want to eat these things because they are yummy. Moreover, desirable body shapes are changing with changing diets and health norms and this is also divided by class. The person who looks hot to someone on the Navajo Reservation or the south side of Atlanta or rural West Virginia may be different than who is hot in San Francisco or Portland or the cover of Runners’ World. But that’s entirely socially constructed as well. Pushing diet is also pushing body type.

And even if life is shorter and diabetes is a major issue, it’s an entirely reasonable and respectable decision for someone to say they’d rather live to be 52 in the comfort of their homes, surrounded by their family and friends and enjoying themselves as part of the culture of their people watching football and eating nachos and pizza than live to 82 and eat celery every day. That’s actually an OK decision for someone to make. Obviously, some of those decisions are being made by parents for their children and setting their children on a nutritional path that might not lead to long life, but unless we are going to call CPS when a child’s BMI gets over the norm, I don’t see any real solutions here.

Let’s also not forget about the very real issue of price. I was at a farmers market last year that took food stamps, which is great. But that doesn’t mean the food is any cheaper. A southeast Asian woman came and bought some peppers. The price came up. You could see her physically blanch in horror. She bought it but I wonder if she ever came back. There might be good reasons for the prices to be high, but if you live in a food desert, you probably have a limited income and those organic tomatoes aren’t any cheaper because of it. Even if you want to eat healthy, you may well not get full doing so because you can’t afford it. I’d love it if the government directly subsidized this food in a way that lowered the sticker price to consumers. Short of that, how can you tell a poor person they should spend their hard-earned but small amounts of money on the food you think they should eat versus what they can afford? A box of Kraft mac and cheese or package of ramen is awful cheap. Might allow you to also have cable television. Which is also a totally OK choice to make.

Again, all of this isn’t to say there aren’t health issues at play here that are reducing people’s life spans. But it would help if the very real and conscious choices made by the poor were also respected in these debates and if the rich would quit thinking the poor are doing something wrong (today in food, yesterday in having sex out of wedlock, tomorrow who knows) when it doesn’t follow the fashionable behavior of the elite.

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