Flash in the Pan 

The year in food

Some will argue that 2010 was the year that homemade sausage finally came of age, or the year the school garden movement exploded. Others will remember 2010 as the year KFC's Double Down sandwich made its glorious debut. With so many food preferences and priorities, you can hardly make an end-of-year food list to please everyone, so let's start with what the people think. Some of them, anyway.

A market research firm called Wakefield surveyed 1,000 Americans on what they felt was "the most significant food story of 2010." Interestingly, the top three stories were threats to food safety: The impact of the BP oil spill on the seafood industry, the nationwide egg recall, and the recall of 35,000 pounds of beef when E. coli was detected at a Southern California distributor.

This public perception makes the current food safety bill especially timely. The bill finally reached President Obama's desk this week. Following closely on the food safety bill's heels, the landmark Child Nutrition Act is also headed for Obama's desk.

Another important policy move went down in February, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) modified its organic standards for beef and dairy. The new "Access to Pasture" rule finally specified a minimum number of days per year that organic cattle must spend on pasture to qualify as organic. The requirement raises the bar, especially for the large producers trying to qualify as organic, forcing them to more truly live up to organic principles. For small milk and meat producers, and the consumers who are willing to pay a little extra for their product, this clarity in the law is welcome.

In other bovine product-related developments, the USDA has apparently gotten serious about investigating the many ways that unregulated pharmaceuticals are getting into our meat and dairy. An April report by the USDA's Office of the Inspector General called out its own agency for its near total lack of oversight in recent decades, and made recommendations for reform.

In other livestock pharmaceutical news, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally released estimates, in December, for the first time ever, of total antibiotic use in the nation's livestock industry. In 2009, that figure was 29 million pounds, most of it for non-therapeutic use—to expedite weight gain, for instance. Such use is partly why there's an epidemic of antibiotic-resistant staph in feedlots. The report expresses the FDA's newfound intention to curb antibiotic use in agriculture.

Amid this climate of agency self-examination, my pick for the sleeper story of the year came from a Colorado beekeeper named Tom Theobald. Concerned about annual losses in his colonies that had grown to 40 percent, he began to suspect an agricultural chemical called clothianidin that is used in area corn fields. The Bayer-patented neurotoxin has been used in seed coatings since 2003, though Bayer's permission to market it was granted conditionally, dependent on the submission of evidence that it was safe for bees.

click to enlarge Photo by Ari LeVaux
  • Photo by Ari LeVaux

Theobald tracked down a lengthy correspondence between Bayer and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in which Bayer repeatedly stalled and the EPA granted numerous extensions until Bayer finally conducted a study. That study was never released, and lay buried for years until Theobald, just trying to figure out what happened to his bees, finally found it online.

The study, done in Canada, was conducted so poorly that the results could not be considered conclusive, or even indicative, that clothianidin used on corn is safe for local bees.

Theobald wrote about this saga in Bee Culture in July of this year, and soon afterward received a phone call from the EPA saying his article had led to an internal investigation. That inquiry resulted in a Nov. 2 memo in which the EPA acknowledged the tragedy of errors that led to the continued permitted use of clothianidin, and acknowledges that scientists inside the EPA expressed bee-related concerns as early as 2003, partly because a similar pesticide had recently caused bee die-offs in Europe.

Bees help pollinate about a third of the food grown in the United States. Theobald says he's hardly the only beekeeper on the verge of having to fold the tent, because you can't sustain that kind of colony loss for too long.

Perhaps the beekeepers and their allies could use a few pages from the playbook of the Center for Food Safety, which has used the National Environmental Policy Act to stop the planting of genetically modified crops in places where they endanger the local environment, and the livelihoods that depend on it.

In one case, Monsanto appealed its way to the Supreme Court, each time losing to the argument that selling genetically modified alfalfa before the completion of an environmental impact study would endanger the rights of farmers to grow non-genetically modified alfalfa. In June, the Supreme Court demanded more USDA oversight, and the completion of an environmental impact study, before allowing the crop to be commercialized.

Then in December, a federal judge ordered that 258 very important acres of genetically modified sugar beets be destroyed. These sugar beets were intended to pollinate and produce seeds for the 2012 sugar beet season. Currently, 95 percent of the nation's sugar beets are grown from Monsanto's Roundup Ready seeds. The seeds are popular because they save farmers the expense and hassle of spraying chemicals on the crop, since the plants manufacture herbicides internally.

Monsanto produces its sugar beet seeds on several properties in Oregon's Willamette Valley. This happens to be the worst place in the entire country for that crop, because the risk of gene contamination there is so great. Judge Jeffrey White ruled that Monsanto was endangering neighboring, non-genetically modified seed industries by letting its genetically modified beets go to seed in the valley.

How appropriate that seeds are the final topic of this year's recap. Because when we reconvene on the other side of the holidays, it will be time to think about spring planting.

Ask Ari: Oiled up

Q: Dear Ari,

I found this extra virgin olive oil that I really like. It's from Italy, has an amazing buttery, mild flavor, and it's cheap. I assumed it was organic because I got it from my local co-op, but it isn't.

Is olive oil one of those foods that really should be organic?

—Certified Olive Oil

A: Put it this way: If you aren't using organic olive oil, then you really want to make sure it's extra virgin.

Extra virgin, or "xvoo" in kitchen jargon, is made from a simple pressing of the olives. Subsequent pressings incorporate heat and chemicals to coax ever more oil from the macerated fruit.

There aren't a lot of agricultural chemicals currently used in olive farming, and what there are have time to get broken down by sunlight and washed off by rain and presumably a good rinsing before being pressed. But the chemicals used in second and third pressings aren't so simply removed.

So given that it's extra virgin, it sounds like your new oil friend is decent enough. Just how much of a keeper it is depends partly on what you can learn from the label and maybe a little online research, and how much you know about the co-op where you shop. Does their non-organic stuff seem generally good quality? These questions might be worth considering, but if it tastes good, the price is right, and it's extra virgin, I say go for it.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

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