Red dye scare in Europe

One of the largest food recalls in the history of Europe has been triggered by the discovery of a cancer-causing food additive in more than 400 products.

The additive, "red dye Sudan 1," is a colorant added to solvents such as oils and waxes. The European Union banned its use in foods in 2003. Apparently, however, U.K. food producer Premier Foods used chili powder that contained the dye to make Worcester sauce, which was then used as a flavor enhancer for a large number of processed or convenience foods.

The U.K. Food Standards Agency has required retailers to pull immediately all items believed to be contaminated with the dye, including such products as chicken and vegetable casseroles. A complete timeline of the recall and additional information on the dye can be found here.

Although the colorant was banned, chili powder tainted with Sudan 1 eluded inspection as it was purchased before more complete testing went into effect, according to reports.


Protection from pesticides

The Natural Resource Defense Council, an environmental action group, has filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency for what it calls "secret, backroom deals" with global pesticide giant Syngenta over the regulation of atrazine.

Although the EU has banned the use of atrazine -- a potent, broad-based weed killer -- the chemical is still used here in the U.S. on corn and soybean crops, as well as public/private lands such as golf courses. According to New Farm reports, more than 70 million pounds of atrazine are used annually in the United States. Atrazine is found most commonly in the nation's water supply, where chemical runoff collects and contaminates ground water and wells.

Scientists have linked atrazine exposure to serious health issues, including hormonal problems as well as cancer. A 2003 report from UC Berkeley scientists found that frogs suffered reproductive abnormalities as a result of atrazine exposure (the report is here; the furor in the industry as a result is chronicled here; Syngenta's comments are here.)

The NRDC has repeatedly called for the EPA to ban the use of atrazine; in October 2003, however, the agency re-confirmed the chemical's registration and continues to allow its use.


Ain't it the truth

Trade data (what we sell abroad, and what we buy to sell at home) is compiled by the Foreign Agricultural Trade of the United States, as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The organization's acronym, appropriately, is FATUS.

Fruit, or fries

I haven't had a burger at McDonald's in at least ten years, but apparently there are some changes at the fast food behemoth that are worth taking note.

A national push toward more healthy foods (following, among other pressures, a lawsuit brought by two teens in NY who blamed MickeyD's menu for their generous waistlines) has inspired the company to offer sliced apples as a side dish or a substitute for fries in children's Happy Meals. This NY Times business article points out a number of positives -- and potential negatives -- of this decision.

First off, it's refreshing that a restaurant chain with more than 13,000 outlets serving some 26 million customers in the U.S. alone is offering salads and fresh fruit -- unfortunately alongside their signature salt-bomb burgers and trans-fat fries. The sheer purchasing power of a chain such as McDonald's is a boon for produce growers, the article points out, who have benefited from consistent demand and corresponding high prices. Yay for agriculture, yay for health.

The specter of crop monoculture (if you've never read it, check out the potato chapter in Michael Pollan's "The Botany of Desire") is a potential downside, as growers scramble to fulfill McDonald's demands for a certain type of apple (that fits the company's stringent quality requirements -- yet, is still produced with pesticides) while tossing other varieties.

Consider this: a chain as large and financially powerful as McDonald's, making a business decision to support organic produce. One can dream, no?


No more hide and seek

A small victory in a current court case may blow some of the secrecy surrounding experiements with "biopharmaceutical" crops in the U.S.

The USDA, in a court case still ongoing in Honolulu, has been forced to disclose the location of pharmaceutical crops -- bioengineered crops that are used to produce medicine or industrial products. A group of 11 environmental organizations brought the suit in 2003, concerned that the mysterious pharma crops (planted in 2002) could contaminate local crops or native plants on the islands.

While companies such as Monsanto are loathe to disclose the locations of test crops over "security concerns," other companies are paying big bucks to cover up serious mistakes. A Texas biotech company called ProdiGene had to pay a $250,000 fine on top of forking over $3 million for contaminating half a million bushels of soybeans with bio corn it had engineered to produce an experimental pig vaccine.

The big get bigger

Monsanto yesterday announced the acquisition of Seminis, a seed company based in California. According to a Food First analysis and my own reading, the most interesting point made in the GMO giant's press release was this:

From a technology perspective, Monsanto intends to continue on the path taken by Seminis for its business, which is to focus on developing products via advanced breeding techniques. Longer term, biotechnology applications could be an option, and will be evaluated in the context of Monsanto's research-and-development priorities and potential commercial business opportunities.

Seminis holds more than 20 percent of the global seed market. It seems that Monsanto is saying that it doesn't plan to explore GMO options -- for now. Still, the ever-increasing consolidation of agricultural materials into so few hands is definitely cause for alarm. Biodiversity should be the rule, not the exception.


Continuing education

Surrounded by herbicides with not a plant in sight. I am working at this company for the next three weeks, a temporary assignment sent by providence to give me an inside look at the workings of a multinational agricultural company.

First impressions: China and India are at the forefront of chemical production, and apparently this is where many companies are heading as prices rise here in the U.S. I now know what's in those rusted hulls of shipping vessels in the bay: chemicals. Refined pesticides, herbicides and fungicides to "help" the corporate farmer grow shiny strawberries on fungus-free sod, happy flowers in an aphid-free environment. Over the next three weeks I'm going to take a look at the active compounds in the products sold here, to determine what they do to bugs, to plants, and to us. Stay tuned.


Blame Calvin

We are, as a society, gluttons for punishment -- but what we should be are gluttons for pleasure. So says the CEO of French champagne giant Clicquot and author of a memoir-cum-cookbook "French Women Don't Get Fat." And perhaps, despite our desire to despise the French in everything (international relations, attitude, fries) Mireille Guiliano has a point. (A point that seems to resonate with, or irritate, most of the NY Times reading community: the article has been the "most e-mailed" for the past three days.)

It's a drag that this country was founded by Calvinists, who escaped religious persecution back home to live the ascetic life in America to which they aspired. Hard work put you at the front of the salvation line, and pleasure, in any form, was devil-inspired and shunned (which helps to explain the pain associated with British cuisine.) It's a philosophy that goes against the very essence of human nature: we crave the most what we cannot have. Remember Eve and the forbidden fruit? Exactly.

So when it comes to food, we diet and we binge, we whimper and we order Whoppers when no one is looking. What tastes good must be bad, so we gorge when we get our hands on it, reveling in the sin and transgression. Can't we just enjoy one piece of chocolate, confident that we deserve it, and perhaps even have walked a few blocks to achieve it? (Then we'd really deserve it.) From the article,

[Guiliano] says eating in America has become "controversial behavior'' and that our obsession with weight is growing into nothing less than a ''psychosis'' that she believes adds stress ''to our already stressful way of life,'' which is ''fast erasing the simple values of pleasure.''

Yes, we all have ten jobs and often have to eat on the run. And yes, there are not wonderful, poetic produce stalls on the street corners in, say, Detroit, as there are in Paris. But there is a wisdom in finding beauty, and peace, in simple pleasures. It's a thought that is not only healthy, but wise.


Taking sides

A couple of things I'm reading, and a Web site that needs to be viewed to be believed. San Francisco-based investigative reporter Chris Cook examines the troubling relationships between the people who make our food and the people who sell it in "Diet for a Dead Planet," published by New Press. A fitting follow-up to Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation," Cook's book offers sobering insight to the world of big agriculture and big supermarkets, and how the small farmer will lose (and has been) every time, unless consumer demand radically changes.

The voice of science (and reason?) defends the potential of genetically modified crops in "Mendel in the Kitchen," authored by Nina Federoff, a molecular biologist and member of the National Academy of Sciences. To feed the Third World, the author argues, advances in GMO crops are not only beneficial, but also necessary. I haven't cracked the book yet, but I'd rather find an anti-GMO tome to read side by side. Recommendations? E-mail me.

And now for the bizarre file: It's not about the chemicals in the coffee, it's about the taste. The gentlemen holding court at the Center for Global Food Issues have unique talents, indeed: it's not easily one can talk of saving the environment with pesticides and plastic and still keep a straight face. You can order their manifesto here.