More mad cows

Canadians have identified another cow suspected to be infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease. Coincidently, the discovery came just 24 hours after the U.S. decided to re-open its borders to cattle imports from Canada, following a 19-month moratorium from a previous mad cow scare. Trade is expected to commence in March.

There is still a lot of misinformation about BSE, and the health threat it poses to people who eat red meat. This U.S. Food and Drug Administration fact sheet outlines many questions regarding BSE and most importantly, details where animal products can and can't be used since the first outbreak of BSE back in 1986 in Britain. The disease is carried in the brain, spinal column and small intestines of cows (all items typically removed from the animal immediately after slaughter), but is typically not found in cow muscle tissue -- a common misperception.

The origin of BSE came about in Britain when diseased meat was fed to other cows as food. (It's innocuously called "cattle protein.") Cows aren't carnivores, and they certainly aren't cannibals. In the push for bigger, fatter animals which in turn produces bigger profits, we've led our animals so far away from their nature that it's no wonder they've fallen sick. There are, however, more and more farmers turning their animals back to the pasture. Although grass-fed beef and other meat often costs more, the investment in our overall health -- body and earth -- is worth it.


Turkey a la Ziploc

Apparently there's nothing to do in space but snack. On Dec. 26 an emergency cargo ship docked at the International Space Station (ISS) carrying 440 pounds of food supplies for the two astronauts aboard. American and Russian space officials were concerned that they'd have to bring the two astronauts (one from each country) back to Earth, as food supplies had dwindled to alarming levels. Not that the agencies planned poorly; the astronauts have been eating, NASA says, "about 25 percent more food than expected."

So what's so great about Christmas turkey in a bag? Most astronauts eat foods that are either rehydrated or "thermostabilized" -- food that has been heat-treated to eliminate any harmful bacteria. Beverages are powdered. Everything comes in a single-serving, disposable bag or flexible cup, which is then jettisoned out of the station to incinerate once it hits Earth's atmosphere. Astronauts on the ISS get a menu that rotates every eight days -- and since the current two have been in space more than three months, one can't blame them for dipping into the pantry to mix things up. Yet a representative of the Russian program says it's not the two astronauts' fault; the guys before them ate all the good stuff and stuck them with the staples.


No chemicals, just a cow

A cow in the family is the difference between life and death in some countries. This article in the Independent UK is one of a series that is documenting the changes brought by aid organizations to Rwanda in areas still trying to recover from genocide and civil war. Through the "Send a Cow" program, Rwandan citizens are given livestock, and taught how to use that cow or goat to help restore blighted and fallow fields and add milk and butter to meager diets.

This is the essence of sustainability. Manure and urine are recycled as fertilizer, or captured and processed to produce methane, then used for cooking fuel. This helps reduce the need to cut down local trees, preserving the environment. One woman talks of mixing urine with "chilies and ash to make an effective pesticide" for her other crops. Surplus milk can be sold, giving a family that once made pennies a day some income to buy clothes, send children to school.


No free lunches

The Bush Administration is cutting back funds to organizations that provide emergency as well as long-term food relief to areas around the world, such as Sudan, reeling from a protracted civil war. This decision comes amid a confluence of crises. This year there are more countries in dire need of assistance, while at the same time the U.S. budget is strained. What money is available will be directed to emergency services, a situation which, said an unnamed administration official to the NY Times, is short-sighted. While war is a temporary crisis, a lack of infrastructure (irrigation, proper land management, etc.) will only create more problems in the future.

Catholic Relief Services, one of the many organizations affected by the cutbacks, explains how short-term relief does not equate long-term reconstruction. During the 2003 famine in Ethiopia, the U.S. directed more than $500 million towards emergency food relief, but only $5 million in training for farmers to better their fields for the future. Today, there are still food shortages in that country.


Organic matters

It's all about the soil. A group of cotton farmers in Alabama is getting some religion with regard to organic farming. An increase in organic matter (chicken manure, primarily) to the soil -- apparently some of the oldest cotton lands in the state -- has, in turn, increased cotton yields significantly -- much to the farmers' surprise. In an industry (food and cotton alike) so seeped in chemicals, it's hard to break the habit. According to this UK association, more than a quarter of the world's insecticides are used on cotton crops. It's a frightening fact. Yet if organic methods can come to mean bigger yields and profits for more and more farmers, it might just turn the tide on this chemical wave.


Jerky under the tree

According to a beef industry newsletter, U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq request beef jerky more than any other food product for their USO care packages. Given the recent news, one would think it would be body armor...but that's hard to fit into a small plastic bag along with a copy of Popular Mechanics. The Colorado Beef Council is sponsoring "Operation BEEF UP our Troops," encouraging industry types to forgo the usual holiday schwag-giving to donate beef jerky to the armed forces, instead. Apparently more than $30,000 in jerky has been raised so far.


Eat me, lipstick

The rage over nutraceuticals has caught on in the cosmetics industry, and food may never be the same again. Or it will be the same food, just marketed far better than Mother Nature could afford herself. Giants such as Estee Lauder and Shiseido are planning to create cosmetics that "make you look and feel better" and that are also "great for your health, too." Some ingenious ideas include cocoa creams and perhaps eye-lifting eggs. Even water can work wonders, according to these cosmetologists-cum-nutritionists: "Borba Skin Balance waters" come in three flavors to clear breakouts, soften wrinkles and keep the skin moist. Good skin (and hydration) will cost you, however. A case (16 bottles) is $60, and the producer recommends you drink at least two 15.2. oz. bottles a day. Then again, you can drink eight cups of water from the tap for free each day, and probably achieve the same effects.


The next crop czar

Last week President Bush named Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns as the next Secretary of Agriculture. Applauded by Dems and Republicans alike, Johanns is expected to be a friend to agribusiness, given his work in Nebraska as well as his roots as a dairy farmer.

There is some concern over his overt Christianity, but I'm not sure how that will guide his stance on GMOs or his support (or non-support) of family farms. God's gotta eat, too.

And a nod to a site that's well-researched and non-partisan: farmpolicy.typepad.com. A good spot for government news on agriculture from a wide range of sources.


The Atkins effect?

The Agriculture Department said yesterday that the average price of food in the U.S. would rise by four percent -- the biggest jump in at least 14 years. Meat prices will rise the most, the government agency said, because of "consumers adopting a higher protein diet." Milk, dairy and eggs are also in high demand, the agency added.

Go Atkins. This has to be the first time a popular diet has increased the demand for certain foodstuffs.

Another reason for the rise in costs is a jump in gas prices, needed to truck all our goods from sea to shining sea. A good thought to ponder: If we ate locally and by the seasons, our food might be even cheaper.


Where's the terror

Outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson dropped a bomb on the Bush administration by saying that the nation's food supply is an obvious target for terrorists. Bush promptly poo-pooed the notion, saying, not exactly in a reassuring way, that everything's a target, not just your morning Wheaties. I don't know whether there has ever been a large-scale attack on any country's food supply, but the possibility of such gives just one more reason for panic to an already over-stimulated public.

Consider this: approximately 5,000 to 7,000 people die in the United States each year from food poisioning. This page lists the food issues and alerts for the past 60 days. There's more than 35 alerts listing everything from milk scares to "undeclared eggs." Not that terrorist attacks on our food supply is anything to scoff at, but we've got a lot of work to do in ensuring that the food we produce at home isn't killing our own people.



"If we had an apple that contained Viagra or an apple that [suppressed] appetite, we wouldn't have these problems."

The debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture may be dead on arrival in America, but in Europe centuries-long tradition so far has kept these crops out of the fields and off the shelves. Resistance may be weakening, however.

This report from a recent international conference gives some insight to where European biotech companies are heading with regard to winning the confidence of consumers who are still reeling from the shock of mad cows…and aren’t too keen on super corn or wheat in their breakfast cereal.

It is a circular argument. We’ve been poisoning our food for generations, and are caught in this nasty productivity loop that either will be broken with more science, or the rejection of science. The biotech pioneers gathered at this conference realize that the farmers (whether they want to be or not) are on board, but consumers aren’t. So, how about GMOs that are good for you?

We know how to make food better. We add iodine to salt, and fluoride to water. There’s fruit juice with added vitamins and nutrients, and cereals with additional calcium for those strong bones and teeth. No matter that food – undoctored, real food – actually has these benefits. You’d just have to eat three, balanced meals a day to get them.

How about flaxseed that contains omega-3 fatty acids, for the prevention of heart disease? Or, as one of the conference attendees quipped, apples with Viagra? Would we embrace Frankencrops as beneficial, then, or still reject them as unnatural?


The laws of thermodynamics

This Times piece looks at whether people pay attention to nutrition information on food packaging. For a decade now, any food sold in the United States must include on its packaging nutritional information. We’ve all seen the white and black boxes, detailing the percentage of sugar, fat, carbohydrates, fiber and various vitamins per serving based on an "average" healthy diet.

Surprisingly, the survey found that most people do study the printed information, but this added bit of knowledge doesn’t seem to be helping the general public eat better, or, shed pounds. The study raises an interesting quandary – despite the availability of dietary information, we are, as American consumers, still not making informed choices about what we eat.

People with health concerns (diabetics, for example) were the largest group in the study who actually claimed to make purchasing decisions based on a product’s nutritional information. And rightly so – maintaining sugar levels for diabetics is a daily battle. Sugar, either in derivatives or simple carbohydrates, is prevalent in so many processed foods that diabetics need to be particularly savvy about what they eat. But this savvy often comes from having a doctor to consult with, someone who can make sense of what all those percentages actually mean and how they will affect the body.

This issue has charged the collective light bulbs at the FDA. After a chain of obesity studies (our national "disease") the FDA has decided it needs to sponsor a "consumer education campaign" so people can learn how to make heads or tails of nutritional information. Their message, apparently, will be simple: If you eat more than you burn, you will get fat. A balanced diet and exercise will keep me fit? You don’t say…