Category Archives: Food Politics

Fear and Loathing in the Produce Isles

For several years American Consumers have been exposed to an onslaught of misleading and alarming information about the foods they eat and the plants they grow. The most common of the “pseudo-scientific” or, really, unscientific claims have ignited a passionate anti-GMO movement, whose adherents believe that crops altered by genetic engineering, either by the insertion of a gene slice from the same or another organism or the use of a protein in the organic bacterial pesticide Bacterium Thuringiensis to protect plants from predators are toxic, dangerous and will destroy the environment. The Anti-GMO faction believes that the American Government conspires with “Big Ag” and “Big Food” to poison its citizens, that genetically engineered organisms and the pesticides they are engineered to resist are carcinogens, that the pesticides used on engineered organisms are killing off bees and lepidoptera and will result in over half of US Children will be autistic by mid-century, that the policies of the companies holding patents for the seeds have caused famine in the third world and wide spread suicide among farmers ruined by corporate policy and that GMO crops will cause loss of all plant diversity.

In 2014 I chose the topic of GMO fears as the subject for a paper for the excellent McGill University course 181X, Food for Thought. It’s point was not to refute the anti GMO claims but to examine the means by which half of the “greatest country on earth” and much of Europe have come not only to accept and fear them as proven fact but to defend them tooth and nail against legitimate research. A list of sources of legitimate information, which is extremely hard to find due to the proliferation of pseudo-science on the Internet, is provided below. Here is the paper:

According to an ABC poll [1] earlier this year, 52% of Americans believe that genetically modified foods are unsafe to eat and 13% are “unsure” Two thirds of the American public fear a technology that has been proven safe to the extent that proving anything safe is possible – Genetically engineered organisms have been shown to be safe not only by extensive FDA, independent, and international research. No legitimate studies have been able to show any correlation between modified crop consumption or agriculture and harm to humans, the environment or other organisms.

The European Commission invested over 450 million Euros between the years 2001 and 2010 on research exploring potential risks of modified organisms. None were found. [2] Not one of the many governmental and private research organizations around the world which have tested genetic engineering extensively for potential hazards has yet been successful in detecting risk.

The attitudes of 52% of American consumers and activists range from mild concern to outrage and extreme fear. Activists and voters have attempted and in Hawaii briefly succeeded in passing bans on GMO crops. Over half of the American population demand that any GMO foods be labeled. This demand includes foods containing sugars – fructose and sucrose – which are chemical compounds indistinguishable from/ identical to sugars from non-GMO crops. Consumer pressure has moved corporations like General Mills to remove GMO ingredients from their foods with the ironic result that those products cannot be vitamin fortified and are thus less healthy.

Consumer ecological and world political objections range from fears that modified organisms will wipe out genetic diversity to Vandana Shiva’s claim that practices of companies like Monsanto, the producer of Roundup and patent holder for many GMO seed varieties have driven Indian peasants to commit suicide. [4].

If GMO crops have been researched and found safe by the world’s most respected organizations and promise real solutions for current and coming ecological and world nutritional challenges, how can two thirds of American consumes reject them? How does myth, ignorance and decidedly cultish belief trump empirical data in the national consciousness?

Very few people even understand what GMO means, for one thing.

What is a “GMO”.

A GMO is a Genetically Modified Organism, which leaves the unfortunate impression that there are tiny life forms or chemical bits in GMO products. BT corn and Roundup Resistant soy are GMO’s. Cattle and Pork are not GMO’s, but cattle or chicken which has been fed genetically engineered corn or soy is termed GMO by those with GMO agendas and concerns. Sugar, as explained above, is not GMO, but soft drinks, tomato sauce or baked goods containing sugar produced from genetically modified sugar beets are inappropriately classified “GMO’s”, leading to the inaccurate claim that 90% of the food sold in America is GMO.

Crops are genetically engineered for various reasons and by various methods – generally the process involves isolating a gene from a related or unrelated organism with a desired characteristic, creating a ‘vector’ of that gene, injecting the vector into a bacterium in turn is used to “infect” plant cells [3].The desired altered characteristic of the organism can be water tolerance in rice, bacterial resistance in threatened species like papayas, grapes, mangos or creating grapes resistant to the devastating bacterium xylella fastidosa. A protein from a bacterium (Bacillus Thuringiensis) is inserted into the corn genome to prevent corn borer infection. The most despised and feared GMO products are glyphosate resistant plants, also known as “Roundup Ready”. Roundup is the brand of Glyphosate produced by Monsanto.

Thre are very few GMO crop varieties in production. The only commercially produced crops are corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, squash, and papaya. A newly developed Potato strain has just been released for planting, as well, and a recently announced strain of browning resistant apples is expected to be available for sale in about two years. No distribution company at this stage. however, would be prepared to bring arugula or melons with altered genes to the market. None the less, customers demand that oatmeal be labeled for genetically altered strains and ask at farmers’ markets is the strawberries are GMO free.

Many countries in Europe have bowed to public pressure and have blocked planting of some of these crops. Note that these decisions were made to comply with public sentiment and not scientific data.

We are romantics and we tend to be luddites.
Or perhaps we are simply hopelessly nostalgic. When Alice Waters stood on the steps of San Francisco City Hall and smiled benevolently over the hundreds of volunteers who had fought tooth and nail to have a spot getting their hands dirty in the Garden For America, an entire nation went out and bought potting soil, throwback overalls and canning jars. America now pickles, cans and puts up wearing designer overalls. Chemistry, physics and big industry – big food, big ag, big resale, big chemistry – has no place in the romantic imagination of people who envision their carrots dug one at a time from a halcyon garden.

When Friederich Wohler first managed to synthesize urea from organic compounds (not from pee) in the 19th century, thus paving the way for synthetic adrenaline and many other chemicals the scientific community was outraged at the suggestion that living juices should not contain “vital essences”. Today the “vital force theory” still exists. [3] If God had intended us to fly, he would have given us wings. Our religious roots offer world views based on belief rather than knowledge – sects like Rosicrucians and Christian Scientists reject proven medical treatment in favor of faith. We have snake dancers.

We are lazy thinkers. We want simple answers to complex questions. We perceive, partially due to more and more alarming media coverage, that many frightening diseases have exploded into the population during the same period that GMO crops were being first developed then introduced, so we want to believe that doing away with the science will reduce the incidence of cancer, autism and many others. We would rather believe charismatic speakers or writers than deal with analytical reality, which requires curiosity and some effort. In matters GMO I have heard the arguments, “You may have some facts, but I have to go with my heart” (as in Jonestown or anti vaccination?) and, “It’s best not to fool with mother nature,”, that maternal giver of polio, athletes foot, hemorrhoids, tsunamis and locust swarms. By all means. Trust Mom.

Most of us understand little or no science and are not interested in finding out: We are not a stupid country, but neither are we as a whole well educated. According to New York Magazine writer Jim Holt less than 10% of Americans are scientifically literate. [5] Radical anti GMO activists make fruitful use of this. I once heard an anti-GMO speaker shout to a crowd: “ I want you to ask every waiter in every restaurant, to ask every butcher, every grocer, ‘Is this MUTANT food.” And the crowd roared agreement. The crowd did not know the meaning of “mutant”. As a people we Americans lack both the vocabulary and the critical skills to distinguish between truth and rhetoric.

Americans are not critically trained: We like to believe: We are seduced by sensationalist media and the false prophets, snake oil salesmen, charlatans and quacks. If enough celebrities speak to an issue, we generally believe them. We lack the tools to determine the accuracy of studies and scientific predictions.

The GMO panic began with a 1999 publication in the Lancet by S.W. Ewen and Arpad of the Rowett Research Institute Pusztai stating that rats fed on GM potatoes suffered intestinal damage[6] [11], followed by the publication of a study by Gilles-Éric Séralini[8] stating that rats fed GMO corn suffered alarming rates of cancer. Although the first study was retracted and the research money returned by Rowett and the second ingloriously withdrawn (it has since been republished to provide the text), the anxiety they created remains in a bizarre Internet version of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. – the more legitimate science tries to explain how facts worth, the more traction those dealing with angst and hyperbole attain. Anit GMO writers base many of their arguments on “Scientists have proven”, or “A published scientific article proves,” using these studies. They are convincing. Vani Hari actually persuaded the government of famine struck Zambia to reject shipments of life saving food on Hari’s advice. [16]

We are swamped by misinformation: Not only does passionate and irrational GMO opposition linger despite the efforts of concerned scientists to educate the public, but fanned by a celebrity created by the GMO debate it has all but overtaken the Internet and media. The anti-science community is now a profitable and well connected industry. One of the country’s impressive quacks, Dr. Joseph Mercola, has since taken up the anti GMO cause. Mercola [8] who is one of the forces behind the anti-vaccination campaign and who has been censured by the FDA [9] for other dangerous claims and practices is a frequent guest of Dr Oz, a highly vocal GMO opponent. (Oz has begun to distance himself from GMO opposition since the end of February 2014, but it is unclear where he stands at this time.)

Misinformation is an industry: Mercola is a relatively small fry compared to Vedana Shiva, a heroin of the Earth Justice movement, who has been honored for her work. It was Shiva who claimed that hundreds of Indians had committed suicide because they could no longer afford seed, among other things. She has recently been much in the news in a bust up with New Yorker science writer Michael Specter, who challenged the accuracy of her statements. [10] Shiva published a venomous ad homonym response, to which Specter’s editor, David Remnick, replied with violent logic.[17]

Slow Food: The most illustrious name to ascend the soap box is probably Alice Waters: It’s a very big important thing. We are talking about the seeds that gives us life. To imagine a company that wants to buy those seeds, patent those seeds, alter those seeds and and sell them back to us, it’s criminal.” [12] Waters, the poster child for the Slow Food Movement, follows founder and leader Carlo Petrini’s doctrine, and foodies follow Alice.

The disciples: Their followers blog, and blogs become memes. Organic Consumers’ blog tells you ten ways (they say) GMO will kill you. [13] Taking things one step further “Food Babe” has set the Internet afire with claims that “wheat belly”, since the question of gluten sensitivity has been laid to rest, is caused by glyphosate sprayed on wheat – even though the wheat is not GMO. [14]. There are so many of these blogs that finding reliable and fact based information has become extremely difficult.

Innumerable irresponsible sites like Realfarmacy.com, which hosts pieces by Mercola, offer a potpourri of faux science, alarmism and sensational misinformation, which is spread as memes via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Social networking has given false prophets a platform and leant quackery wings.

The established media repeats and thus affirms the claims: From lone prophets to the respected media: As the sheer volume of Anti-GMO sites and followers makes data harder and harder to find, legitimate organizations like NPR and Consumer Digest miss on fact checking and support the myth rather than the data. The UPI mistakenly picked up and broadcast vaccination opponent Stephanie Seneff’s claim that glyphosate (Roundup) would make half of all babies autistic stating that “MIT Scientist Claims..” , news outlets reprint the allegations,  and it’s a wrap. The entire country believes false statements, since they come from trusted sources.

Universities legitimize the myths: The interaction of popular intellectual media and Universities have given Anti GMO authors and journalists like Michael Polan and Mark Bittman a legitimizing forum for thee philosophies in which they Believe. Marion Nestle of NYU, Bittman and Polan, who heads the Department of Journalism at Berkeley have all spoken against Genetically engineered crops. [17] University of California Berkely is currently offering a course in Food policy, Edible Education 101 [18] .
Stephanie Senneff presents herself and is presented by the media and Anti-GMO activists as an “MIT scientist,”  which makes here the defacto voice of MIT.

What’s in it for the writers, for the bloggers and the followers? Follow the money: Grants, speakers’ fees, web sites selling cures. Ads on blogs. Vedana Shiva demands $40,000 per speaking engagement. She appears to live well. [16] Mercola pushes miracle cures. Oz has his media empire. As for the new girl on the block, Stepehanie Seneff, whose prediction that glyphosate, the herbicide used in some GMO plantings would cause half the country to be autistic: speakers fees and possibly the gratification of being celebrated as the voice of MIT on issues biochemical. (Seneff is a computer science professor, not a microbiologist).
Further down the disinformation chain there is social cohesion. Belief and belonging foster identity. Once believers join the march they are members of a community which tolerates no contradiction.

What about the politics? A tricky part about the public consensus of democracy is that people believe that everything is democratic, including science. It is not. Science is evidence based, or to use a nice word, “empirical”. Daniel Moynihan’s :”You are entitled to your own opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”  is poorly understood. Equipped with fear and a surplus of bad information a growing number of not only Americans but Europeans have begun to demand either that GMO foods be labeled or be forbidden altogether. The Council of Europe in a bow to public opinion granted member nations the right to ban import of GMO crops, and some  have. The California County of Sonoma and Kauai in Hawaii voted on outright bans on GMO growing. The Sonoma proposition lost, but Hawaii’s passed. It has since been overturned. Politics overrules science, and by doing so negates science.

Readers’ Digest Version: A small number of blogging public activists used a discredited study to promote an anti-science / pseudo-science agenda. Their misinformation is picked up and promoted first by media figures and food celebrities then by legitimate media sources, leading an unquestioning and scientifically poorly educated public to fear food created by genetic engineering. Activists who profit from the GMO hysteria use this fear to demand cessation of genetically engineered farming and failing that to demand labelling of all products containing any substances derived from genetically engineered crops. A bad study leads to national hysteria.

There are, however, a few bright points. The media seems to be picking up on a nascent “Science is Cool” sentiment. Oz appears to have changed his opinion, Celebrity Scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has come out against pseudo scientists with his usual short tempered accuracy, and hysteria usually dies down at some point. And then there are a few very sane and very clear and unbiased voices.

Nathanael Johnson, a refreshingly unbiased agriculture writer for the ecology site, www.gryst.com, has written a series on the truth and myths of GMO’s. He has a few more ideas as to the cause of the roots of genetic hysteria. For one thing, says Johnson, the company associated with GMO crops and Roundup is Monsanto, the company responsible for and still closely associated with Agent Orange, which, in turn, is emotionally linked to Roundup. “For most people, I suspect, GMOs are a metaphor — a stand-in for of all that is vaguely frightening in our food system. People attach their mistrust of agribusiness and fear of the unknown to this metaphor.”

Bibliography and Footnotes.

1) Gary Langer. Skepticism of Genetically Modified Foods. ABC Poll. June 19/?. http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=97567Poll: Skepticism of Genetically Modified Foods 2) A Decade of EU Funded GMO research 2. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, decade of EU Funded Research, ISBN 978-92-79-16344-9 / doi 10.2777/97784 3) Ronald, Pamela C; R.W. Adamchak, Tomorrow’s Table. Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. 5) JIM HOLT, Madness About a Method. New York Times Magazine December 11, 2005 6) David H. Freedman Scientific American The Truth About Genetically Modified Food Aug 20,2013. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-truth-about-genetically-modified-food/?page=1 7) Worstall, Forbes. 11/30/2013 That Appalling Seralini GMO Cancer Paper Has Been Withdrawn 8) Joseph Mercola’s Blog: http://gmo.mercola.com/ 9) Quack Watch.Com – http://www.quackwatch.com/11Ind/mercola.html 10)Michael Specter, Seeds of Doubt. Annals of Science August 25, 2014 Issue http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/25/seeds-of-doubt

11) Mischa Popoff & Patrick Moore & Robert Wager, Organics versus GMO: Why the debate? October 15, 2013, Genetic Literacy Project http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/10/15/organics-versus-gmo-why-the-debate/ 12) Alice Waters Discusses Food, Community, and GMOs November 14, 2012 Yoli’s Green Living. http://yolisgreenliving.com/2012/11/alice-waters-discusses-food-community-gmos/ [13] Alexis Baden-Mayer & Ronnie Cummins, Ten ways GMO foods are killing you – And the Planet Organic Consumers Association, February 1, 2012 http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_24800.cfm 14) The Healthy Home Economist. http://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/real-reason-for-toxic-wheat-its-not-gluten/
15) Carlo Petrini. Ten Reasons to Say No GMOS Italy – March 5, 2015 – Carlo Petrini http://www.slowfood.com/international/food-for-thought/focus/71683/ten-reasons-to-say-no-gmos/q=25F06E 16) Keith Kloor, The Rich Allure of a Peasant Champion. Discover Magazine. October 23, 2014 3:29 pm 17) David Remnick, New Yorker editor David Remnick responds to Vandana Shiva criticism of Michael Specter’s profile The Genetic Literacy Project. September 2, 2014 http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2014/09/02/new-yorker-editor-david-remnick-responds-to-vandana-shiva-criticism-of-michael-specters-profile/ 18) Nathaneal Johnson, Panic-Free-GMO’s. Grist.com July 8, 2013 continuing.

16) BBC: Zambia rejects GMO food aid. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/2371675.stm

17) Marion Nestle, Mark Bittman and Michael Polan
Rebuttal to Mark Bittman on GMO’s

Mark Bittman gets the science wrong (again) on Roundup – New York Food | Examiner.com

http://www.forbes.com/sites/jonentine/2014/01/06/agent-orange-gmo-after-usda-backs-24-d-seeds-michael-pollan-marion-nestle-lead-activist-hype-of-discredited-link/

18) The UC Berkely course Edible Education 101. http://edibleschoolyard.org/ee101

Further reading:

http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/10/15/organics-versus-gmo-why-the-debate/

http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2013/11/30/that-appalling-seralini-gmo-cancer-paper-has-been-withdrawn/

Nathanael Johnson, Gryst. http://grist.org/food/rat-retraction-reaction-journal-pulls-its-gmos-cause-rat-tumors-study/ GMO mythbuster.

http://grist.org/food/gmo-labeling-trick-or-treat/

Nathanael Johnson’s Panic-Free-GMO series in Gryst.com beginning 8 Jul 2013 http://grist.org/series/panic-free-gmos/

(this post is about 07 Adverse Food Reactions / Food Production Stories)

Scienced Based Medicine: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org

International Scientific Organizations and State and international health organizations stating that GMO’s cause no risk. http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/GLP-Science-and-GMOs.pdf

The New York Times on Vani Hari, the most prolific of the anti GMO food bloggers and vaccination deniers: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/style/taking-on-the-food-industry-one-blog-post-at-a-time.html?_r=0

 

 

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Food a Politics: The Chick-Fil-A Dustup..

The short odds are that you know the current state of the Chick-Fil-A debate. If not, here a short recap:

On the 16th of July Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy stated his clear and unequivocal opposition to  same sex marriage . He did so in the Baptist press and raised a hullabaloo.

Gay Activists rose to the tossed gauntlet, The Muppets refused to sell them any toys for their children’s meals.

Politicians with a claim to family values picked up the gauntlet and slapped everyone, Sarah Palin made a celebrity appearance holding big bags of chicken and sides , while Mike Huckabee proclaimed Wednesday a National Chick-Fil-A day (Can he do that?), and the mayors of Boston, Chicago and San Francisco vowed not to let Chick-Fil-A open any restaurants in their towns. (Can they do that?)  Ironically New York’s Mayor Blumberg, a man with a proven proclivity for banning things having to do with restaurants, thinks banning Chick-Fil-A inappropriate.

I have no dog in this fight. I am straight, not particularly (at all) interested in marriage and a bit perplexed at the number of people who are. I count devout Christians and people of various gender walks among my dear friends  and never thought of same sex marriage as having any particular connection to restaurants aside from the terrific financial boost to the industry San Francisco received when Mayor Gavin Newsom declared San Francisco the first city to legalize them – you couldn’t reserve an event space for months, our hotels were full and our retailers delighted.

If I don’t understand why people who don’t have to get married are so eager (I understand the legal implications, however, and in fact, my wedding was a great party, dancing bears and all) , I sure as hell don’t get why people who are or could get married feel it their mission to stop others from doing it. For the love of God (That is the point of Christianity, isn’t it? God’s love? The quote as I remember it is, “I am an angry god”, not “I am a small minded, petty god”) if two people want to get married, let them – it’s good for the economy, there will be more happy people on earth, there will be some fabulous parties, and most of my gay friends have shown a better commitment than a lot of us in mixed gender marriages manage to keep.  Why does the religious right want people to be unhappy?

Don Cathy of course, has a right to say and think anything he wants, no matter how bombastically and sanctimoniously stupid, as long as he doesn’t scare the horses, and the public has an absolute right to vote with their feet and wallets and to express their opinions about Cathy, his church, his chicken and his values – screaming with signs outside his restaurant, if they feel so inclined. (That’s pretty much a given).

I personally think the man is a blowhard ass, I’m glad he’s not my neighbor, and if I owned stock in the company I would demand his removal from the board, then sell (although this seems to be a boost for their sales – they are not fools and playing to their audience very well).   I’ll bet so did their VP of Public Relations, Donald Perry, before the stress of the whole affair did him in.  But that’s just my opinion.

It is remarkable, as an aside on Perry’s death, that no activists, liberals and friends of couples dying to walk down the aisle haven’t made the sort of comments about Perry’s death as conservative icons of the religious right like Gene Beck, Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann have been known to do about God’s wrath causing various national tragedies. There is little question here as to who takes the high road.

For one thing, Cathy/Chick-Fil-A  donates funds (a little less than $2 million) to organizations like The Marriage & Family Legacy Fund and others, whose lobbying  efforts extend to areas well beyond  one man one woman, so two thighs, biscuits and a side of coleslaw at one of their locations may mean giving money to the enemy. Of course Citizens United has made this perfectly legal, but none the less, it’s sure disconcerting. I for one would like to know if a dime of my super-sized Coke is going to anti abortion or gender discrimination or immigration lobbies (either way) or whatever.

Since the Cathy Brothers’ billionaire status is to some extent attributed to their followers in faith, the restaurants are in effect donation machines. I can’t think of any other business..certainly on that level…that functions in this way.

On the other side of the oh-no-you-did-not coin is the rush to political correctness by Boston, San Francisco and Chicago.  It’s bone headed posturing, since Chick-Fil-A would be fools  to open in any of those cities – nobody would eat there – but the hubris of any mayor or city council barring a business based on their political views is beyond outrageous. Freedom of opinion counts for both sides.

There’s something more insidious about the Cathy’s amygdala hijack: the conversion of restaurants into political vehicles.

Once upon a halcyon time civilized eating meant avoiding religion, finance or politics during the meal. I never really observed the rule, but then I am occasionally ill mannered and not a gadzillionaire with a restaurant chain.  Cathy should have done. He crossed the Rubicon by polemicizing what ought to be civil, neutral ground, the tables we share. Breaking bread with people of different opinions civilizes us. Eating in political conclaves does the opposite.  Apart from the quality and the mean mindedness of his sentiments, dividing our tables by politics is indecent.

We should be concerned that or resigned to the fact that he may have opened Pandora’s Box – that our tables could  come to represent not only our culinary tastes but our political stripes.  That would be disastrous.

A senior member of the California Legislature recently mourned the civility of the time when  members of Congress went out for drinks or dinner together after the day’s session, and contributes the eroding of decency to the loss of that. Democrat and Republican congressmen/women in DC eat at separate dining clubs. No need to wonder why they can’t find common ground.

Ojala Mr Cathy’s self obsessed foolishness remains an isolated phenomenon. Let tire shops and newspapers and department store owners express their prejudices and beliefs, if they are dumb and crude enough to do so  – the places where we break bread need to be inclusive meeting places in which we our paths cross with people of opposed opinions.   Switzerland made a lot of money staying neutral during WWII. Let’s hope the rest of our watering  holes and eateries do likewise.

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Rolly Polly Nation, the Law and the Blindered Prophets

So we’re fat. And now what?

Mayor Bloomberg has been proposing one of those simple save the world solutions to just about everything, also known as an administrative Brain Phart, in the form of a Big Gulp fiat. By limiting the size of sodas he suggests, New York can get a grip on its citizens’ girth and health.Zip Zap Zum.. Problem solved.

Now that Alice Waters’ sensationalized cerebral flatulence on (0 calorie) bottled water has petered out, the nation appears to be flocking to the soda is evil camp and willing to curtail its consumption with any possible means including taxation and prohibition. Public shaming and caning cannot be far behind.

The science behind the ardor attributes every nutritional and plenty of the physical ills of our culture to soda: Obesity, heart and circulatory disease, kidney and  liver damage and diabetes to name a few.  According to the USDA the average American ingests 360- “added” sugar calories a day, enough to add 36 pounds a year, half of them from soft drinks.  If you calculate in Americans who drink no soda, someone is piling on unimaginable tons of blubber and endangering themselves and the health economy.. A UC Davis study predicts that a soda tax would save 2600 lives a year.

Advocacy groups like the nattering CSPI, who have finally found a cause to legitimatize themselves with a National Soda Summit, are riding the wave out front while agrandizing themselve by elevating a congress to a summit.   Both the CDC and USDA support the concept of state soda taxes. Pop producers and interest groups like The American Beverage Association  have taken up the challenge and deny their claiims, smacking of Gordon Gecko self interest and insincerity as they do. Salvo’s are flying like bullets over the Alamo.

You really have to enjoy a good fight. They bring out the jesters like Brokelyn.com  and the worst and most entertaining in politicians straining to gain favor with the masses, but this one is unsettling on many counts.

For one thing the crusade against soft drinks is simplistic. Demonizing one thing, in this case soda, promotes the idea of a silver bullet as the solution to a tangled mess of complex issues, here obesity, disease and the financial burden of paying for little buddy scooters for  Mountain Dew addicts. It is the lazy approach we Americans like to take to just about any problem. Remember when Obama ran on “Change”, and a country voted for him in the assumption that he would solve all our problems in a few months, but he didn’t?  Now his approval ratings have plummeted and we blame him? It doesn’t occur to us as a Nation that things are complicated and solutions take time, so attacking one thing – token or substantial – appeals immensely to our lazy nature. This is the same.  Sensational gestures rarely reap sensational results.

Soda isn’t the only contributor to the “obesity epidemic”. There are a slew of other factors in our national weight crisis. My favorite is convenience food, mostly because I don’t eat much, so I can feel smug about damning those who do. The Huffington post just published statistics showing that processed foods, which are generally less healthy and higher in calories than fresh foods, have risen to the top of the American grocery list from near the bottom, while dairy products have dropped to last place

The most obvious and my least favorite culprit is lack of exercise – I rather prefer chairs and chaise lounges to Pilates and would rather drive than hike, even though I know I lose much more weight from physical exertion than deprivation.  French women, who by the way DO get fat – just not as much as we do – walk a lot. The French and European Paradox is fairly easily explained by their greater exercise in the run of their normal days. Life in Europe is not harder but requires more motion than in the US, which burns pounds. They also don’t eat the junk so many of us like.

Fast food, famously caloric and cheap due to farm subsidies and the use of sweeteners where one does not expect them – namely in meat – coupled with America’s growing nutritional ignorance and the convenience for working families earns the obesity blue ribbon.  The statistics mentioned above also show that Americans are buying fewer groceries. Since they obviously aren’t eating less, it’s a good guess that they are getting fed at Quick Serve Restaurants. A simple McD’s hamburger contains only 250 calories, but their most advertised items like Angus Bacon and Cheese Burger have nearly 800. That’s without the fries and the Coke or the Blizzard. A Starbucks White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccino® Blended Beverage delivers 330 – ten of those and you’ve gained a pound.

I personally also attribute nationally increasing girths to the disappearance of vanity. My shallow sense of worth by appearance is the main reason that I stay  under the four hundred or so pounds my genes keep screaming for me to gain. The younger generation does not seem to mind large amounts of flesh drooping over their tank tops or low rise shorts.  In the dark ages at college there was one fat girl in our dorm. We loved her, but it was clear she would never have the success we envisioned for ourselves (marrying well, above all – we weren’t as smart as we thought we were) .  Groups of young girls roaming downtown today are more likely to be convex than concave and they are apparently just fine with it. Maybe Bloomberg out to ban chic clothes in plus sizes. Or dictate full length mirrors on school doors and strewn around restaurants and food stores.

Despite the nutritional left’s cries that food is too cheap and you can make do with fresh produce as economically as with convenience food, the cost of fresh produce versus convenience food is repeatedly cited as a major factor in the poor American diet. The supposed impact of posting calories and nutritional content not only on groceries but at chain eateries – another silver bullet – has not brought the expected success.

Too few people know how to cook and really understand nutrition. Cooking used to be taught at least to seventh grade girls.No more.

Add to the above that we eat too much. Before we settled on blaming soda  for everything there was a hue and cry about candy, fats, salt and sweets. David Kessler, former Commissioner of the FDA , maintains, possibly correctly, that sugar and fat are addictive and that America’s tendency to treat itself to more carbonara, King Size Snickers and multiple Whoppers is due to a kind of conspiracy by the food companies, who act like dope pushers, hooking us young and stringing us along until our common food caused illnesses shorten our national life span. Kessler has also stated that he supports government intervention in food choices and costs.

This is where it gets scary.

Kessler’s and others’ complete lack of hesitation to support government intervention into personal dietary choices is troubling. When we find that the soda tax doesn’t work, a new demon will be found and regulated (remember trans fats? yet another silver bullet). Whether it is a junk food tax, a fast food intervention or an age ban on selling ice cream or candy to minors is unimportant. What does matter is that some politicians will at least try to do public good by invading personal choice. .The New York Health Commission has already discussed control of other high energy foods.  Britain is already debating a 20% “fat tax” on unhealthy items. Denmark has initiated a butter tax.

There is another problem with panacea, single demon of the day thinking of the obesity problem: We imagine immediate results (think Obama again). This is scientifically improbable as far as fatness is concerned. Changes in national average weight and health are more likely to take generations than years. Enough studies have revealed that excessive weight once gained sets the brain and body to continue to demand energy intake.  Individuals with strong will power can lose weight and keep it off, but we cannot suppose that demographics will do so. Yanking on the anchor chain will hardly turn the Queen Mary.

And this: Polls show a large portion of the populatoin in favor of bans and interventions of one kind of another – that means many people telling many other people what to do, “If it solves the health problem” (it won’t). or “saves us money spent on health care” (it can’t). When we begin to tell our neighbors how to live their lives, no matter how good we believe it might be for them, we cross a very dangerous line. It’s not quite drowning Salem witches to save their souls, but their dinner is simply none of our business. If you want to intervene, you can tell your congress person to stop funding mobility assistants for people who eat too much, but one should be careful at handing the keys to someone else’s cupboard to politicians. It could backfire.

Tax and ban proponents liken themselves to anti tobacco campaigners and the taxes they support to cigarette taxes, an interesting comparisojn but false.  There is no such thing as second hand Coke, and drinking a Pepsi in your home will not give your children earaches.  While cigarettes are the proven cause of many miserable deaths, sugared drinks are contributors to some.

East Virginia promotes its proposed Soda tax with the promise that the money will be used to sponsor nutritional education, as are many cigarette taxes. Good idea? Certainly, but if it please the sovereign state, why the Hell weren’t you offering nutritional education without a tax, if it’s so damned important? (It is).

This is where I offer a solution, and if I were God, I’d be glad to. I don’t have one, but I have a couple of ideas: Start working for long term success by educating children and young adults, use media to get messages out to the country – our English channels could take a cue from Spanish speaking television’s impressive public service announcements “Salud es vida”- health is life. Stop subsidizing sugars.

Rather than banning large portions, require that any outlet selling super-sized portions also offer reasonably small servings of popcorn, soda and ice cream for reasonable prices, increasing rather than reducing consumer choice.  You just try now to get a one man popcorn at the movies or an edible portion at Cold Stone Creamery, where every cone is family sized.

As long as you are at it, legalize fruit kiosks like those in New York in all cities and insist that inner city grocers selling liquor and snacks also stock fresh fruit. It’s invasive, true, but not as much as preventing them from selling empty calories.

If the government really wants to make an impact, might we suggest that instead of reducing the amount of time allotted in schools for physical ed they increase it. John F Kennedy’s school fitness programs, aimed at making us competitive with the dreaded Russians, were effective.  So we’ve got drones doing our dirty work – so what.  Fitness is still in our national interest.  Let the kids climb rope, do jumping jacks and run races again. It supposedly helps their brains as well as their physical health. If you say it is too expensive, then please quit bellyaching about the cost of health care for the unfit.

There are a lot more suggestions out there.  Let the Senate form one of their famous committees for something both useful and attainable. Obese children and food sick adults clogging the system  should give them some common bilateral ground, for a change.

Bloomberg is hardly a stupid or simple man, although touting National Doughnut Day as he introduced his plan was not all that astute.  I suspect the proposed Big Gulp Ban is conceived as much a statement as a fix. Unfortunately as we have all seen there are many less astute politicians urged on by public advocates, who will hustle to follow suit and outdo it with perverse creativity.

I realize the desire is illusionary, but it would be so uplifting to see measured common sense minus the sensationalism injected into the obesity, diabetes, health care debate. I don’t know about you, but I had a terrific mother once who told me to eat my broccoli and not the candy bar. I loved her, but that was really annoying, and I don’t want my mayor or state senate stepping into her unfortunately empty shoes. (For one thing they wouldn’t stand a 500 calorie snowcone’s chance in Hell of filling them.)

Don’t expect the same results from Bloomberg’s program and other states’ proposed soda taxes as the smoking bans achieved. You may see a change in your lifetime, but I am sure I will not. My family lives to 100.

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The answer to the nutritional health crisis is not a repentant Paula Deen

The Party’s over, America. Get ready to be told to eat your spinach.

After suffering Jamie Oliver’s patronizing missionary swing through the American nutritional landscape (An Englishman is telling America how to eat? They eat canned spaghetti on toast, for the love of Gawd), we are about to be treated to a much less entertaining Paula Deen proselytizing healthy nutrition. In case you’ve just come out of hibernation, Deen has outed her type 2 diabetes and with the speed of a congressman caught in a threesome with a teenager and a high priced hooker come to Jesus with a full public mea culpa and a promise to do only good with a healthy food show in future. Her conversion outraged Tony Bourdain and saddened those of us whose pleasure was watching her stuff a week’s worth of fat, sugar and salt into a single appetizer serving without apologies.

Deen’s retreat from salt, sugar and trans fats is our loss – devil-may-care-and-don’t-spare-the- lard is at the very least highly entertaining, and whether or not her new focus on what’s good for us is well intended or just self serving, like Oliver’s warnings, Michelle Obama’s charming cajoling, the Center for Science for the  Public Interest’s incessant and self-serving nagging and all of the nation’s food political media sensationalism combined, it is not going have any substantial impact on the country’s obesity statistics or diabetes crisis. You  have to get to the root of the problem, which is us, to effect real improvement. And that is what? Are we simply culinary idiots?

Granted, American eaters are occasionally stupid, as evidenced by the increasing number of three hundred pounders zipping around on disability and Medicare paid My Little Buddy Scooters years after their doctors warned them, that their diet would take out their knees and hips. Our fellow eaters know that McDonald’s 1500 calorie burgers and Starbuck’s 500 calorie frozen coffees are going to make them fat, immobile and sooner dead – but neither Starbuck’s nor Domino’s is feeling the pinch of their logical conclusions. Apparently cause and effect thinking  (Big gulps yield inability to support your own mass) is not our strong point, but you can’t hold stupidity alone responsible for the current national nutritional health crisis.

So blame it on the manufacturers, who are putting cheaper corn syrup sweetener in things you wouldn’t consider dessert and marketing a bucket of calorie packed fried chicken as a healthy family meal. So ban toys in Happy meals or pass a soda tax,  Go to battle with the First Amendment and try to stop their advertising. Good luck.

The food industry is simply doing what businesses do and Paula Dean is about to do: Playing to their audiences.  They sell what  consumers demand. You can of course,  like Paul Kenny accuse food manufacturers of creating an addiction and attempt to resolve the problem with a war on Lardo or sugar, which promises the same success as the government’s war on drugs. Or we can fix it, at least in the long term.

If we as a nation want to solve out diabetes and obesity crisis, which means addressing what it costs us in health care and welfare programs, we can’t just scoff at “stupid” and blame the providers of food, Nutritional outrage and good intentions are ineffective. We need to look beyond the buzz words and the facile finger pointing of the media and identify the underlying causes of the country’s poor eating habits. Junk food’s ubiquitous availability (evil producers are selling it) and advertising bombardment are results, not causes. If our nation’s eaters were dying to have spinach snacks, Kraft would be producing them and running million dollar ad campaigns at the Super Bowl.

Is junk food addictive? Perhaps, but “habit forming” is perhaps a better description (things you like produce serotonin, whether it’s running or eating salt water toffee) and as tidy as the accusation that big agriculture and McDonald’s are pushing addictive products, It’s more probable that we, once we reach our mid-twenties, have formed habits that we are not  likely to break until we get our own diabetes diagnosis. The fact that we will change our habits then shows that we are not that stupid.

What we are, as a nation,  however, is ignorant, and there’s an app for that.

The real underlying problem is lack on knowledge aboout and understanding of the simplest facts about food – culinary and nutritional illiteracy. Americans for the most part know pitifully little about what they eat. They don’t know how to buy it. They don’t know how to cook it, and according to the statistics on food poisonings, they haven’t got a clue on  how to keep it. I suspect that most Americans don’t know what really good food tastes like. The continued existence of Velveta is proof of that.  We build our life long pitiful eating habits as children because nobody tells us any better. This wasn’t always the case..

How’d that happen? Two generations ago your grandmother, who may have been rolly polly and not a great cook, was serving your mother a balanced meal and sending her to school with something more or less appropriate, including celery sticks with peanut butter, a tuna fish sandwich or an apple. If you are under 40, your own mother probably didn’t do that (if she did,  you are probably not obese). Nobody’s mother did. Blame it on feminism.

Our common food culture is in great  part collateral damage of the women’s liberation movement. James Beard as the spokesman for the Jolly Green Giant and Westinghouse with the first dishwashers led the way to the sea change in our eating conventions, creating conveniences which permitted Mad Men’s wives to toss away their aprons and enter the work force, but Gloria Steinem’s followers did in America’s healthy relationship with food by stripping Home Ec from our high schools.

Bless’em for that. Home Ec, frequently boring and generally run by bossy and intolerably opinionated teachers, was obligatory for girls, who usually gave up Geometry or beginning algebra in order to graduate from junior high school. Eliminating first the requirement and then the class entirely put girls on equal educational footing with boys and provided women the academic foundations to transcend the nurse, teacher, stewardess and teacher futures available to them.

Eliminating home economics also saved the schools a lot of money. Lab courses are enormously expensive to run, and insurance was just beginning its parabolic climb to astronomically expensive,  when the courses disappeared, and the cost of insurance for classes using knives and hot liquids would have destroyed school budgets.

Education equality with men also means that women know as much as their male classmates about food: Squat, a knowledge void passed on to their children. The problem was compounded by the time limitations set by women’s initial liberty to participate in the work force, reducing the time spent providing cooking experiences and instruction to their children.  Balanced sit down meals and brown bags began to disappear in the seventies, creating a population that not only did not know how to cook or understand nutritional basics, but doesn’t know what good food can and should taste like.

If you want to change America’s eating habits, you have to educate our children: Return Home Economics classes to the schools. Make them obligatory for all students in their food formative years – that would be about the seventh grade. Make them accessible and interesting and not preachy. Keep it simple and don’t insist on organic or sustainable product. Teach your children how to make basic foods – forget Alice Waters and the ideologues and stick with an American menu adolescents will like. Just do the basics. Explain vitamins and calories, flavors and technique.

Other courses won’t lose ground. Good food preparation involves math and science. It’s fascinating stuff. Show kids who have had nothing but Tortino Pizza Rolls and Pop tarts why bread has holes in  it and how absolutely awesome a little orange and cheese can taste, how much fun watching a sauce firm up can be. Make jam. Fry eggs, mix salad dressing (colloidal suspensions), make lemonade from fruit.  Cook up a BLT or a croque monsieur. Mash potatoes. Explain a food budget and make a banana smoothie. Explain why steel needs to be sharpened and milk is homogenized. Let them cook bugs and make a pie or cookies without a mix. .

Added bonus: The Trojan Horse effect. Children, being the insufferable know-it-alls they are, will carry their nutritional literacy beyond the classroom. Parents are going to get an earful when they put another batch of Kraft Mac ‘N Cheese on the table. That’s good. Some will want to cook at home, occasionally in self defense. (This was not the case with the traditional course, as the at least one person in the home could usually prepare a meal.)

Still Better: In only eight or so years the first batch of nutritionally literate adults will be opinion makers and trend setters, and their demands will be met. The fast and convenience food providers are using mass media to educate. So, Educate Back. The schools have them as a captive audience, face to face for at least an hour three times a week. Sarah Lee would die for that exposure. Why aren’t we using it.

What speaks against return Home Economy to the schools:

The Money Problem.

Food classes aren’t expensive. They are exorbitant.  They require equipment, product, and insurance. But then good education does cost something, and it is our general mandate, all of ours, to educate our children for the important things in life. We are failing here. Just as important is what an educated eating public  will save. Congress is belly aching about the cost of Medicare. What if the next generation of adults didn’t need Scooter Buddies to haul their four hundred pound carcasses around the sidewalks? What if they didn’t need insulin and knee replacements?  Would that offset the cost of teaching the most basic component of our lives to people who  need the education? You betcha. After all, we have sex education, don’t we?

Oxen being gored: Whose? Who knows, but any major change disadvantages someone who makes money from the status quo. 

And there are the unions.  An attempt I once participated in to set up a good culinary program at John O’Connell high school ran aground at the shoals of the hairnet lady’s union. The plan was to let the students cook lunch twice a week. The hairnet ladies said no, and the class was re-conceived as a special needs solution. We need to get our priorities straighter, if we want to resolve really large problems.

Big Food Industry: While Big Food can’t be held as the sole culprit in the American nutritional crisis, they enjoy great profits from it, which they won’t give up gladly. An early attempt by Slow food San Francisco to introduce apples as snacks twice monthly was foiled by the contracted suppliers of potato chips and Snickers bars. Big Food lobbies, and they are not going to lie back and allow the educational system to market carrots as snacks to their prime audience. They had, furthermore, effectively undermined Home Economics classes before they were dropped with donations of their products (Mac ‘n Cheese, mixes, Jello) to Home Ec programs,

You can do something. Take this immodest proposal to heart, then take it to your congress person, then take it to your school board. Michelle Obama – stop finger wagging and start lobbying for hands on food education. Just the basics. It will work.

 

 

 

 

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Food and Foie Gras and Freedom – Democracy fails again

Years after much of the foie gras brouhaha has subsided, California’s foie gras ban signed into law by Arnold Schwarzenegger on Sept 29, 2004, is about to go into effect, and California’s chefs are pissed. You should be, too.

The question of animal rights and vegetarian or omnivore is less of an issue in this law than its implications for the integrity of our law makers and the protection of personal rights in a society which increasingly values the voice of the most vocal minority activists over empirical science and the greater interest of the public.

Why? I like ducks. What’s wrong with protecting them?

Lots, even neglecting the fact that avian experts at the University of California at Davis clearly determined that Gavage, the process by which the geese are fattened, neither damages nor distresses them – although legislation based on bad science and misrepresentation serves no one.

So what’s wrong with the bill, even if no birds are harmed by gavage? It’s just an elitist dish served by snooty chefs, right?

Again, lots of things.

,For one , the kickoff to the bill was nothing less than an act of vandalism or terrorism if you believe the FBI.  An animal rights group, which never had the courage to put its name to the act,vandalized a new Sonoma restaurant project and the owner’s van and threatened the chef/owner and his family by sending pictures showing his child  inside the home: “We know where to find you.” The chef owner was forced to sent his wife and child back to Europe for their protection and took the loss of the project, not wanting to see the violence escalate.

Not only the restaurateur was threatened, but owners of other small businesses were threatened and harassed. Having expressed my opinion on the subject, I  received numerous “we know where to find you” with veiled threats on my answering machine, as did chefs around the country.  The California Senate validated these criminal actions by ceding to the activists’ demands.

You don’t reward that kind of behavior.  It encourages imitation. Yet John Burton and the California Senate did just that.

It is a bill without a reason – a solution to a problem which does not exist.   It neither improves the ducks quality of live nor protects anyone nor anything from danger or abuse beyond excepting slaughter. If this bill is valid, than any bill banning meat and poultry production, sales and consumption is equally valid. It is the kind of empty and baseless pandering, crowd pleasing legislation which has contributed to California’s current legislative and fiscal dilemmas.

Counting on the reaction with enough media, the activists did not cease their activity but stepped it up  with an aggressive public relations campaign which eventually landed on the desk of outgoing California State Assemblyman John Burton. Burton, pandering to the calls for drastic action,  chose to sponsor the ban as his legacy. The passing vote was a parting gift by his colleagues.

Think of it this way: Instead of giving Burton a gold watch, they gifted  him a restriction of your right to choose what you eat and legitimate businesses’ right to provide services.

But there was overwhelming opinion against foie gras, correct?  Not exactly. There was loud opinion and prestigious opinion.  Informed opinion was missing in action.  Since most Californians had hardly ever heard of foie, they didn’t think much one way or the other. The voices were those of PETA and Pease’s followers,  who took dogma for fact. The law if based on faux science and untruths.

The charge against the small business producing the product in California was vocally supported by Governor Schwarzenegger’s tearful friends and colleagues of the glitterati, among them Paul McCartney, Chrissie Hynde, Kim Basinger, Martin Sheen and Pamela Anderson.

But what’s the harm? Foie gras is an unnecessary luxury, after all. The harm is enormous, considering the legal intrusion into the choices of businesses and consumers practicing ethical policies. It is neither the government’s job nor its right to ban things to which a minority objects based on their general popularity. We don’t need chocolate, Coca Cola, leather belts, the color puce or hip hop, which may offend some people. Their gratuitous nature does not give the government the right to forbid them.

This ban was supported by people I admire including Paul McCarthy and Martin Sheen.

These people are great actors and contribute much to our lives. It’s hard not to love Sheen in the West Wing, but  we did not elect them to office, and I personally resent Bea Arthur’s making law, as she succeeded in doing here. They are not experts in the field of avian science or animal husbandry and apart from their strong feelings have little to say about our governmental processes. California had two actors in the Governor’s Mansion, and each time was a disaster.

Why would you trust actors and show people to sway the course of your state legislation? You wouldn’t let these people tell you  how to drive or what clothes to buy. Why would you let them how to run your state? Or would you — in which case, this piece is way above your pay scale, and you should return to TMZ.

I said forget about the law not being based on facts. Let’s not.  Remember “W” rejecting the “fact based community”?  Think of all the money and lives this country would have saved if he and his had given an ear to reality. The die hard adherents to the foie law also reject facts.

Legislation should be based on facts. The foie ban was based instead on emotion. Despite ample expert evidence presented by veterinarians, avian scientists and the University of California Berkeley contradicting the statements made by animal activists that foie production abuses animals, the Senate passed a bill for appearances, fanned by uninformed sensationalism.  Laws based on emotion and diatribe are poor choices.

The activists ignore or brush off all empirical evidence regarding the process, and the legislature ignores it. The activists are not stupid – they know and they don’t care, but distortion of the truth and misinformation fits their agenda better. Their motivation is based on identity and power issues and demagoguery (I was a minor demagogue once for a short time, and it’s really kind of fun),  rather than a logical concern for rights, reality and truth.

As a matter of fact, the lead figure in the foie battle shows a blatant disregard for “right” and rightness. Bryan Pease who has a history of what he would call Civil disobedience and the rest of us might be more inclined to consider thuggery,  was offered a deal by one of the restaurants being threatened before the passage of the bill. The restaurateur would place a 90 day moratorium on foie gras sales and investigate Pease’s claims, but in return Pease would spend some time working in a soup kitchen to experience something like the real restaurant world and take the trouble to inform himself with the help of the restaurateur regarding the actual facts of the process.

His refusal was not surprising, as Mr Pease certainly has been informed of and apparently doesn’t give a duck’s butt about the facts of the issue. His  campaign would appear to be less about the actual welfare of the birds than than visibility of his cause and the connections and power which inevitably come from this kind of lobbying and outrageous activity.

You should be concerned about this bill, furthermore, because it was passed quickly in an atmosphere of sensationalism and threats, it is a piece of political expediency by politicians who in pursuit of their own pandering engendered personal advantage and short term favor played away your rights?

“RIGHTS?”  You ask.  Why do I need the right to eat foie gras? That’s for rich people, and I am not sleeping in a tent in front of City Hall or Wall Street to support that lot of sodding thieves?

Umhh…well, yes you are, because what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. (sorry).  Discriminating against people you don’t like or care about can easily lead to discrimination against people you do, including yourself.  Vocal and unprincipled activists supported by throngs of the well-meaning followers with limited critical thinking abilities can get a lot of things banned. This kind of legislation was once called blue laws, and they may still exist in some places less evolved than the great State of California. No drinking on Sunday and the like.  False morality posing as factual concern inevitably results in repression of somebody.

There are a lot of people these days who take offense at cars. With the same tactics they could force you to use your lousy public transportation system.  Ideologues in China made everyone wear the same dreary Mao suits (not mention imprisoning and killing quite a few).  You and I do not want the most vocal groups to tyrannize us and to limit our options.  It doesn’t matter if they are members of the Christian Right effectively making homosexuality illegal through their emotionally contagious aversion to sodomy, Environmentalists striving to ban cars in cities or food groups forbidding the sale of corn syrup (which despite the fact that it sounds like a good idea is not). In our system we don’t want the mob with the biggest stones pushing the rest of us around, and that’s what happened here.

In short, what has happened to California is mob rule. Small, loud mob. Big stones. It’s bad policy.

Chicago went through a similar process and eventually passed a ban on fatty goose liver with just about the same  machinations, plus one vegan alderman seeking reelection. Fortunately Mayor Chris Daly was not particularly moved and eventually convinced the more level headed of his political colleagues to reverse the decision, calling it Hogwash.

Finally, the entire process was cowardly in that it targeted not those who one could logically accuse of mistreating their animals, but one small business without the money to fight back, but which feeling they were right,  went into debt trying. Had there been any integrity whatsoever in Pease’s avowed desire to better the lot of animals, Tyson chicken rather than an immigrant duck farmer who cared about his livestock would have been in the process and won.  The animal activists are bullies. I don’t know about you, but I hate being bullied.

So what do you do if you think this is a bad idea?

For one thing,  do your civic duty and bang on your Congressman’s door. Sweet talk your Senator or Representative. “You Sir/Madam,  I know, weren’t part of this stupidity, and I am sure you have the intelligence to reverse it, bless your heart.”

For another,  inform yourself. Learn the facts.

The Artisan Farmers’ website provides ample, highly credible information on the process, including an informative video by Anthony Bordaine statements by veterinarians and testimonies to the California State Senate rejecting claims that foie production harms fowl.

Sign the Artisan Farmers’ Alliance petition to reverse the law.

So, what if you are still not comfortable eating foie gras? Don’t. It is not going to become a fast food item any time soon. It’s production requires great care of the animals and costs accordingly. Like so many cholesterol laden innards, it’s hardly health food. Choose the heirloom tomato salad instead, knowing that I and those who share my opinion of your right to determine what goes on your own plate will not sit beside you and preach that you should not be eating tomatoes because tomato pickers are exposed to pesticides.  Keep those standards you feel necessary for your own integrity and let others keep theirs.

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The last hope for America: How chefs and Pizza Hut can save the world economy and make the House compromise on spending.

As we despair at reports of the intractable career politicians and dogmatic toddler brained representatives we foolishly elected  to Congress trying to send the most powerful country in the world to Hell in a hand cart, we are all missing the most obvious solution to the problem: Motivate the legislation, and do it right.

Psychologist Vladas Griskevicius explained on NPR’s Morning Edition that the House and Senate are playing a game of economic roulette with the United States’ economy because they are unable to foresee future consequences of their actions. Immediate personal consequences, he explained,  specifically taking away their parking spaces, would expedite their decision making process.

 “Suppose that we say that if the budget isn’t reduced, Congress isn’t paid anymore,” he said. “Or worse yet, suppose they lose their parking spots if the deficit isn’t reduced two years from now. All of a sudden you’re going to see all kinds of self control adopted.”

The man has a point.

Unfortunately, neither the President nor John Boehner has power over parking spaces. War yes. Parking spaces, no, so if the representatives we elected cannot understand urgency and only function on the basis of an immediate rewards system, we need to find another commodity to award or withdraw.   What could that be? Nothing could be easier.

What would your mother have done in the face of your bone headed adolescent intransigence?  Sent you to bed without dinner, that’s what.  What, I ask you, is the most powerful driving force? How did  Mom reward you when you were good? Food. That’s the ticket.

The answer is to withhold food. If it works with two year olds and fifteen year olds, it will certainly work with our legislators, who have proven that they are no smarter than toddlers and teens. In the current climate, that should be easy.

The situation is ideal. There are 435 Representatives in the House and 100 Senators, most of whom are holed up in their offices or cheap  hotel rooms during the debates. They have to eat something, and right now it’s either at the restaurant  or Pizza delivery.

We in the food and beverage industry – that is our colleagues in DC – are in a historically unique position of influence right now. Lobbyists ain’t got nuttin’ on restaurants, pizza delivery and take out Chinese.   All they have to do to motivate Congress to come to an agreement on raising the debt limit so that America’s credit rating isn’t slashed, plunging the country into economic oblivion  is cut the suckers off. Don’t let them in the door, don’t deliver. Let them exist on instant ramen, power bars, and black bean soup.  Withhold Beano, as well, and for the love of Democracy, cut off their bar privileges.

Cut off their staff, too. We don’t want them sneaking Styrofoam clam shells of steak back from the Capitol Grill or slices from Domino’s to the pol’s hotel rooms or office cots, and a hoard of cranky young secretaries will give them even more immediate reason to resolve the issue.

If Heidi Fleiss were back in business, there would be further options, but it’s probably illegal for Twitter to cut their access, so, Chefs and Restaurant Owners of Washing DC, the onus is on you. Jose! Nora! Ronald McDonald! Do NOT FEED THE CONGRESSMEN.  Nor the Senators. Be bipartisan. Not Republicans, not Democrats. When they do the right thing, send them tapas, que and doughnuts. Until then, cut them off. Be hard and resolute. You have power.  We need you to exercise it. Pass it on.

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The USDA and the Ruptured Rapture.

When they’re wrong they’re wrong.

Harold Camping isn’t the only one waffling these days, after pronouncing the much awaited rapture to have actually taken place on the 21st, then saying it didn’t happen, then saying it actually did. In case you haven’t heard, it was invisible, but the world will now really, really end on October 21st of this year, so forget your diet, and you probably don’t have to vacuum after about October 7.

Your government has been doing the same thing for years. The United States Department of Agricultured, among other bureaus, has been pronouncing what is good and what is bad, molding America’s food choices for the length of it’s 105 year existence. In 1916 the first food pyramid was created to advise parents on child nutrition. With input from the United States Department of Agriculture, congressmen from agricultural states and commodity board lobbyists, the pyramid has shaped America’s diet in ways which are hardly fact based.

In the most recent upgrade, also under the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups, the FDA said, “Gee, that was all wrong — or, ummhhh, sort of wrong,” and reshuffled the nutritional building blocks of the national diet like a tangram..

The USDA  also tells you what is safe to eat and what to avoid. They change their minds a lot.

I was a baby during  the waning  years of rationed butter, cream and sugar. My mother was always proud that she, guided by her government, had saved the good stuff for me. I was fattened up nicely and am will fight off the pounds until dead. Milk and meat, sugar, eggs  and grains flip flop in Food Pyramid world between beneficial and detrimental. My father after having had a hardened carotid artery shattered by a passing bullet, spent his life until he was about 75 eating only egg whites, chicken and poached fish. At seventy six he said to Hell with it, and lived for another twenty on a diet full of eggs Benedict, burgers, ice cream, cheese  and fried calamari. It wasn’t the cholesterol that got him in the end He would be amused to hear now that butter, eggs and fat are officially healthier than margarine, to which my mother had attributed his survival. We all suffered with him. Thanks FDA.

What the federal bureau advises, local politicians legislate in a rush to show you they care (in the hopes you will care for them) by banning Caesar Salad or  hamburgers or potentially sodas.  San Francisco passed a rule forbidding the sale of steak not cooked through, then backed off and demanded that servers provide warnings. Raw milk is too extensive a subject for now, but raw milk wars rage on, with the US Federal and several state governments scrapping with the Amish on the subject.

These decisions and fiats are not uninformed, but they are pretty often incompletely informed, and the lag between the time when policy is determined and when it adapts to hard science can be bafflingly long, but praise the Lord and pass the medium rare pork chop, it does happen.

One of the great taboos passed down for the past few generations was that of raw pork. It was based on an extremely nasty tiny, deadly parasite called trichina, which once  could be found  in pork and occasionally in wild venison, and, as four US WWII Soldiers discovered to their dismay , in insufficiently cooked polar bear  shot by conquering, drunken heroes and grilled on the spot at the Berlin Zoo.

In all probability  you think of Babe, Animal Farm and Charlotte’s Web, when you think of pig farming – slops, smiling porkers wallowing in mud and talking to spiders. Time was, yes. Today’s pig farming, whether industrial or back to the olden days, is far different, as are most of the pigs, and there hasn’t been a case of trichinosis in the US for decades.

One of my favorite things in Switzerland was “Speck”. This isn’t the Italian speck, but raw, smoked bacon, hung in the wine cellar and sliced off to be eaten with beer, dark brown bread and mustard. I didn’t take any the first few times I was offered. On being asked why, finally, in the farm kitchen of Max The Peasant, I shared my “knowledge” , and set everyone around the long, wax cloth covered table into hysterical laughter. They were bending over and holding their sides, tears running. My creds were shot.  Switzerland – like the rest of Europe – where trichina had probably been wiped out at about the same time it disappeared in the US, has been eating raw, cold smoked speck and rare pork chops for about forty years now, all the while we have been washing down dry, cardboard flavored pig.

We seem to have caught up with them, now, at least as far as pork goes. The FDA at last has realized that pink pork is not life threatening only forty years after the Swiss figured it out, so they have published formal permission to have juicy pork chops and steaks, advising cooking it to 140 (medium) and letting it sit (So it will cook more). I’d say forget that. I’ve had very pink chops, and I am looking forward to more of them.  So, well, thank you FDA. Better late than never. If I were disposed to listen to Brother Camping, I’d probably eat pork without your blessing, but now nobody’s going to look at me funny.

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Street Junk Food

The Iowa State Fair comes to Downtown San Francisco

In May of 2010, a handful of visionary food entrepreneurs were running a Kafkaesque bureaucratic gauntlet in exasperating attempts to get permits for the kind of food trucks that were making the front pages of the New York Times and the LA Times, stumbling into walls and redirects as they wandered City Hall. In theory, the police department assigned mobile food permist, but the cops were having nothing to do with a new set of vehicles with open kitchens. (“They could sell drugs from those,”  said one.) The Health Department had its doubts, and the Board of Supervisors, whose previous president and current bar owner Chris Daly had pronounced that “There are already too many restaurants in San Francisco” was absorbed with their usual social experiments and international political declarations.

“I’d be happy to give the City $10,000 for a permit, groaned Gail Lillian, who was trying to set up a falafel truck, but they won’t take it. I thought the City needed money, but they won’t let me pay it to them.”  .Gail wasn’t the only one. La Cocina, a non profit food business incubator which initially enabled Latina women (and now everyone)  to turn their ethnic specialties into business models, had been trying to get permits for street food in carts and trucks for about two years, but had only been able to secure off street spots at the Farmers’ Market.  More daring young business-chefs hadn’t waited, choosing instead to run outlaw operations, using Twitter to inform their locations to an avid fan base, who thrilled to the idea of eating illegal food on the sly.

The economy was thus effectively routing around the broken system of food permits (or lack of them) when Supervisor Bevan Dufty  took up the cause and pushed It through the Board in a just a few months. By November of last year a streamlined permitting process had been transferred to the Department of Public Works with a substantially reduced price tag of about $3000 per vehicle, and a street usage fee of $125 per year. (This has since been reduced to about $1,000 for permits and street usage.) Opposed brick and mortar restaurant owners had been placated by an agreement not to locate trucks serving similar fare in front of local eateries.

Dufty, it seemed,  done good: In addition to securing the appreciation of San Francisco’s infinite resource of street hungry foodie hipster voters, he and the other City Hall occupants gained not only Gail Lillians now celebrated “Liba”  falafel, but a daily shifting street food selection including the already permitted La Cocina trucks at the Wednesday farmers’ market and the collection of trucks serving everything from Kobe beef sandwiches (sells out fast) to Asian noodles and Samosas at “Off the Grid” a random herd of wheeled eateries at United Nations Plaza, a block away.

The development was not without protest –  previous Mayoral Candidate “Chicken John” Rinaldi announced a “puke iin” in response to one of La Cocina’s trucks in Dolores Park – but most San Francisco residents and office population fortunate enough to live or work where trucks could be parked started to hope that they, too, would soon be carrying All Star Tacos or foie sandwiches back to their homes, desks or break rooms for lunch. Silly them.

The downtown, Union  Square business community is not, it seems, going to be treated to a daily changing menu of kobe beef sandwiches and Vietnamese noodles. But that’s all right. It’s getting the Iowa State Fair. Three  (3) trucks of it, Monday to Sunday, all day. Kettle Corn, funnel cakes, waffles and crème brulee (they probably serve crème brulee at some state fair.). The center of one of the two top food cities in the US has been handed a kettle corn monopoly. So much for the office girl’s dream of culinary diversity.

It makes sense in a way: That’s where the tourists settle into block long, fog bound lines waiting for the Cable car, and that’ what a lot of them are  used to. We certainly wouldn’t want to overwhelm them with Pho and quesadillas. Now they will all go back to Lubbock or Detroit swooning over our upscale junk food – “Margaret, you wouldn’t believe it. We ate Funnelcakes in the cable car line!  Those people in Frisco really know how to eat.” And then, of course, there are Herb Caen’s flying rats as well as the earth bound kind. They’ve been looking pretty emaciated recently, but wait until they’re put on a steady diet of fallen kettle corn. Our patron saint would approve. Making Market Street look more like Fisherman’s Wharf will bring a comforting lowest common denomenator consistency to the City. 

In case you were wondering how this was planned, it wasn’t. Some junk food lord just swooped down on the cheap, available spots. It could have been worse – fast food companies have reportedly realized that there’s a cheap version of the Oklahoma land rush going on and are vying in Los Angeles with the “legitimate” chef vendors, creating what the LA Times has dubbed a “food truck bubble”.

Downtown business associations have their own objections and have stopped everything to confront the trucks. “It’s turned my life upside down,” said one of the directors. They object to the lack of any kind of plan or guidelines, the result of speedy cobbling of the bill. At the moment the “Planning” process consists of submission of a permit request with first come, first serve selection.

Cartier on Union Square is understandably apoplectic at the proposed taco truck blocking their high rent luxury windows. Aside from an obvious stylistic disconnect between the truck and brand, they cite long lines and litter. Remembering the 10% tax on Bottega Veneta’s $10,000 purses buys a lot of pot hole fill, San Francisco might want to listen to their concerns.  A mostly middling collection of eateries in the food court in Bloomingdale’s basement is opposed to anything that vies with their selection being stationed in the neighborhood. Real estate owners and property management companies fear liability issues: If the kettle corn propane tank blows and injures someone in Bloomie’s entrance, who is liable. (Hint: Who has the deeper pockets?) Our food truck arrangements are still a little rough around the edges.

Maybe Bevan and the stupes didn’t do all that well after all. Perhaps there’s still time to step back, take a breather and refine the concept with a distribution plan that actually serves the communities whose limited food vendor slots are being practically given away, before they all go to businesses who sell deep fried Twinkies and Hooters or McD’s.

And then, just maybe, it would be a really, really good idea to circulate the trucks – after all, the suckers are on wheels  – to put different trucks in different places on different days. Put those vehicles in gear and let them roll.  Give us at our desks access to a diverse menu – the kind of food so many of us left Iowa and Texas and Alabama for.. I want the Kobe sandwich. Crème brulee once a week or once a month doesn’t sound like all that bad. Daily kettle corn is a plague.

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