the real threat of antibiotic resistance

It’s been awhile since I wrote about the kinds of food issues that get me hot under the collar, for lack of a better phrase. My time for reading up on current issues is severely limited in the summer, for a lot of reasons, but primarily the amount of time spent dealing with vegetables and also running like it’s a part time job in marathon training.

But at the end of July, the federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals
overturned two rulings in cases which had directed the FDA to stop the routine use of certain antibiotics in healthy animals unless drug manufacturers proved the safety of such use. (Source, Majority Opinion, Dissenting Opinion)  


This means that even though the FDA admits that the use of antibiotics in healthy animals to promote growth and weight gain contributes to antibiotic resistance in humans, they can’t do anything to stop producers and commercial livestock companies from using subtherapeutic drugs for healthy animals. They issue voluntary guidelines, which are about as effective as me calling Cargill’s customer service department and asking them to stop using antibiotics in healthy animals.

Here’s the facts.  

  • 2 million people in the U.S. alone are infected by antibiotic resistant bacteria each year
  • 23,000 people in the U.S. DIE from these infections each year, in addition to the many who die from illnesses complicated by antibiotic resistant infections
  • Leading health organizations from across the nation and the worldleading organizations and not just wacky health food hippies – have spoken out against the use of antibiotics in livestock. To name a few – the World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Medical Association, American Society for Microbiology, American Academy of Pediatrics. 
    • The Director General of the WHO: “Things as common as strep throat or a child’s scratched knee could once again kill. A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it. The problem arises when drugs used for food production are medically important for human health, as evidence shows that pathogens that have developed resistance to drugs in animals can be transmitted to humans.”

This isn’t fringe science. There’s no real debate in the scientific community that this is a major public health problem. We are running out of antibiotics that are effective in treating many serious infections, and it will change the face of modern medicine if we can no longer stop common infections.   

But our own government organizations – the ones that are tasked with protecting the health of Americans – won’t stand up to industry and force them to reduce and eventually eliminate their reliance on subtherapeutic antibiotics. None of us want to revisit the world of our ancestors, where a scratch could easily kill you.

So what do you do? Beyond making public comments when they are open and supporting legislation that would push for stricter regulations?

Stop eating meat that comes from animals raised with antibiotics. 

I realize that I’m blessed to be able to buy meat from local farmers who do not use subtherapeutic antibiotics in their feed. But I can tell you right now that if tomorrow, my sources were no longer there, I’d give up meat altogether.

More and more suppliers are producing meat that’s antibiotic free, and prices are coming down as demand begins to grow. If you do one thing to change your diet to support health as well as a better food supply – do this. Save antibiotics for when you have a real infection – and not just when you’re having dinner.    


 

Federal “DARK Act” introduced in Congress: why you need to care

This week, U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo (Republican from Kansas) introduced legislation called the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a bill so mislabeled in my life, as what this bill would do is ensure that we never achieve safe and accurate food labeling.

Opponents have dubbed this the DARK (Deny Americans the Right-to-Know) Act, and the hyperbole actually seems to fit here. The bill aims to override state efforts to label GMO foods, as several states have taken up that charge and introduced labeling legislation. Rep. Pompeo’s bill would prohibit any mandatory labeling of bioengineered foods.

He claims that the “patchwork” of state GMO laws creates no standard and creates unnecessary fear on the part of consumers. And I agree with him on the first point – we do need a federal standard. But we need one based on science, which at the current moment means that we don’t know the long-term effects of GMO crops on health and the environment. So we need to be aware of where they are and how much we are consuming. If products aren’t labeled, the long-term effects can’t be assessed. Labels are like the informed consent portion of being part of a national experiment. People have a right to be afraid when we aren’t informed. We need to know.

To me, this bill is evidence that the bioengineering companies know that consumer confidence is flagging and that their lack of transparency is an issue. So instead of changing their business practices or allowing the American people to decide what they want, they will pour their money into Congressional pockets to take the decision out of our hands and into the federal government.

In the absence of any federal transparency legislation, state legislation is important. State legislation is where the voice of the American people gets to be heard more than lobbyist dollars and Big Ag. Yes, on the state level we also contend with lobbying and misinformation, but the vote comes to the people who are affected by it, instead of members of Congress who can be and are often easily swayed by corporate money.

This bill really matters. Enough that I’m contacting my legislators, and I encourage you to do the same. Even if you have no issue with GMO foods being unlabeled, the fact that the government is trying to preempt your right to have that distinct voice be heard in a state-level vote is troubling. And right now it’s biotech corn that’s at the center of this debate. But if this legislation passes, what’s next? Biotech fish? That’s on the horizon. Maybe Farmed & Dangerous wasn’t so far off with its 8-winged chicken.

So I’m sending the letter below to my federal legislators – and even some that are in my region, but not my specific area. It’s a modification of a letter that Just Label It, a national GMO labeling advocacy organization, put together. Feel free to use it and tweak or personalize it to let your legislators know that you want transparency and choice in our food supply.


I am urging you to not co-sponsor the new legislation introduced by Rep. Pompeo (R-Kan) that would deny consumers a right to know about genetically engineered or biotech foods and allow companies to voluntarily label genetically engineered (GE) foods. Until independent, third-party science can truly verify the long-term health and environmental effects of GE foods, the American public deserves transparency. If bioengineering companies are to be allowed to expose the public to GE foods, which can pose risks on many levels, we have the right to informed consent.

Rep. Pompeo’s bill would pre-empt states from taking any legislative efforts towards the labeling of GE foods and allow GE ingredients in products labeled as  “natural.”  It would also prevent the FDA from requiring GE labeling in the future. As one of the 93% of Americans who support GE labeling, I strongly oppose this legislation, and urge you to not sign on as a co-sponsor.

I am asking that instead you support the GE Food-Right-to-Know Act (S.809/H.R. 1699) sponsored by Sen. Boxer (D-CA) and Rep. DeFazio (D-OR) that would require food manufacturers to clearly label any product that has been genetically engineered or contains GE ingredients. Studies have shown that the majority of Americans regardless of race, religion, class, or political party support GE labeling, a right that people in 64 nations around the world already have. Lack of labeling also complicates our exports, as more and more nations are refusing to import GMO foods. Russia is just the latest.

Please endorse federal labeling of GE foods, and vote against any legislation that would bar the Food and Drug Administration, or the states, from mandating labeling of GE food. Do not support legislation that makes the American people, your constituents, the lab rats of corporate biotech.

Sincerely,

If you don’t know who your representatives are, you can find out here. Same with senators, here. I’m contacting my senators too, in case this bill makes it to them.

We can’t expect legislators to know what we want them to do for us if we don’t tell them. Watching and reading the news and getting outraged isn’t going to do anything if you don’t push where it matters. Then we can hold our elected representatives accountable.

current-label

nutrition labels get a makeover

Recently, the FDA announced proposed changes to the nutrition labels that appear on food packaging. It was announced as part of the Let’s Move campaign and billed as a public health initiative. These changes are the first since the labels were introduced in the 1990s.


I’ve always thought the most ineffective/deceptive part of the nutrition facts label was the number of servings, and by the same token, the calorie count. Did you know in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s there are 4 servings? I mean, who measures out a half cup of ice cream? Not many people. And in a 20-ounce bottle of soda, 2 servings? Often the bags of chips you get at sandwich shops to accompany your meals are two servings. 

So the new labels aim to address this issue, among others – the primary goal being to allow consumers to more quickly choose what’s healthy. (Ironically, the nutrition facts label is a separate thing from ingredient lists, which the FDA also regulates. For someone to truly quickly choose what’s healthy, they need to know a little something about the ingredients too, but that’s a separate issue.)

The proposed new labels will do a few things, but the first big change is the layout. Calories are much more prominent, as are the servings per container. Companies will be required to make serving sizes more realistic instead of artificially making them smaller so that calories per serving appear smaller. Ice cream servings will be one cup, and 20-ounce sodas will be one serving. If a package is truly two servings but is assumed that it could be eaten in one serving (possibly like snack bags), it will require a dual label. Basically the labels will reflect what someone does eat instead of what he/she should eat.

The proposed labels will also require a new line under the carb category that says “Added Sugars.” This is really important, since we know for sure that Americans, and children in particular, consume way too much added sugar. (Watch Jamie Oliver’s TEDTalk where he shows you with an actual mound of sugar what kids consume in a year. Crazy.)

Potassium and Vitamin D will also be added, as public health officials find both to be deficient in the typical American diet. Potassium contributes to lowered blood pressure and Vitamin D contributes to bone health. Vitamins A and C will be voluntary listings.

Calories from fat will be removed, since science has shown that the type of fat is more important than the amount

A 90-day comment period will be held, and if no changes are made, it will take a few years to implement the changes. Industry will push back and want to make revisions – that’s almost inevitable.

But regardless of what happens, the general consumer needs to be more educated about what these items even mean, and how to combine that knowledge with facts about the ingredient list to determine what is a “healthy” product. Honestly, the more you have to do math and detective work to figure out if something is healthy, the less likely that it is. The proposed new label will not fix all of America’s dietary problems, but it’s a great start!

yoga mat sandwiches: real threat or hype?

You might have heard the phrase “yoga mat sandwich” tossed around lately. After a prominent food blogger/activist started a petition to get Subway to remove a chemical called azodicarbonamide from its breads, the issue went viral.

Azodicarbonamide is a chemical foaming agent, used in yoga mats and other plastic items to make the item spongy, light and strong. And apparently, bread at Subway. It supposedly “makes bread rise higher, stay soft and form an attractive crust.”

But it’s not just Subway making “yoga mat sandwiches” – according to a follow up study by the Environmental Working Group, azodicarbonamide actually appears in at least 500 processed food products made by a large number of companies. The World Health Organization has found that there are health risks to workers who are exposed to azodicarbonamide, but no one has done studies on its health effects in humans who ingest it.

So here’s the problem. It’s fine for these bloggers and activists to try to get the word out about what’s in our food. I agree with that wholeheartedly, and to some degree, talk about that in this space. But ok, Subway is now removing that chemical from its bread. But what will they put in its place? Bread that’s just made up of flour, yeast, salt and water? Doubtful. 

It’s not an effective overall strategy to get one company at a time to remove one ingredient at a time from one product at a time. What we need are comprehensive regulations and overhauls of the food industry in general, so that the FDA does not approve additives for food use in the first place with no scientific evidence as to whether or not they can threaten human health. We need a policy that considers chemicals to be dangerous for food until proven safe, with effective, third-party science.

So go ahead and stay away from processed foods with “yoga mats” in them – but don’t believe that the removal of that one chemical from a food makes it healthy and/or clean. Processed foods are processed foods. Don’t buy into the hype that industrial food companies are prioritizing public health by removing singular additives – even in the face of increased public awareness, they are still prioritizing profit.

online petitions – effective tool or just armchair activism?

In the age of social media, online petitions were almost inevitable. What better way to marshal support for a cause than to use social media to push the agenda, in hopes that it go viral?

I’ve signed a few online petitions before, mostly related to food issues. But does that really accomplish anything, or is it just armchair activism – an easy way to assuage our uncomfortable feelings about whatever the injustice is that the petition aims to combat?

Petitions that are sponsored and/or backed by advocacy groups are more likely to have legs. That is, they are using a collection of signatures to advance their already existing lobbying efforts. These groups exist outside of social media and have at least some power to get issues in front of legislators. 

But what about the petitions that are just started by a random person with an issue? I’ve been emailed petitions to sign to save just about every animal species under the planet, to take every ingredient out of every processed food, to make dolls and toys for kids of all shapes and sizes. (Recently, a White House petition to deport Justin Bieber received enough responses that the White House will have to issue a response.) 

A lot of these issues are good causes that I support in theory. But a lot of them are slightly misguided. For instance, the petition to take artificial colors out of M&Ms so as to not expose children to those chemicals doesn’t make any sense to me, since children really shouldn’t be eating any M&Ms at all, or at least not enough to make a difference. It’s worse to be exposed to those chemicals through the processed foods kids eat at every meal. So why try to get companies to change already unhealthy products to still unhealthy products? 

Shouldn’t we be petitioning the FDA and USDA to help us get chemicals out of our food supply, as opposed to individual companies? Consumers can also choose to not purchase M&Ms if they aren’t happy about the ingredients. If you don’t like the ingredients in Subway’s bread, don’t eat at Subway and if you choose, let people know why you don’t. But most Americans can’t go completely off-grid and stop buying their basic food supplies at grocery stores. So shouldn’t we be petitioning the government to make our general food supply safe and not just asking for one specific product to remove a specific ingredient?

I think it makes people feel like they are involved in activism when they share petitions and stories on social media. And really, they are. It’s a good thing to spread information and raise awareness, and I take part in that myself on a regular basis. But before you sign online petitions and expect them to make a difference, really think about whether or not that petition has a likelihood of affecting change, or if there’s a better way to go about it. 

Asking Subway to change its bread isn’t going to do anything to reform our food system. Take the time you would spend on online petitions and contact your legislators or write a response when legislation or FDA/USDA rules are up for public comment. Spread those messages on social media. It’s awareness of the scope of the real issues in our food supply that will ultimately make a difference.

book review: Foodopoly by Wenonah Hauter

I added this book to my list of reads after I realized that the author is the executive director of Food & Water Watch, an advocacy organization I follow quite closely. I was expecting it to contain about the same types of information that I usually find in books about the food movement. Interesting and informative, but not much new.

Well, I was wrong. Foodopoly did have some familiar themes, but the level of research and explanation in this book blew me away. Hauter’s main argument is that while focusing on changing consumer behavior and “voting with your fork” is important and has its benefits, no large scale change will happen without complete reform of the faulty industrial, corporate-controlled agriculture system that we have now. 

What this book does really well is explain how we got to where we are, and what the factors are that contribute to it staying this way (and getting worse). I expected a book with such an extensive and thorough notes section to be dry, and while it did take me longer to read than some other food books, it’s because there was so much information to absorb. 

Reading Foodopoly really hammered home for me how much of a privilege it is to be able to buy food from local farmers, living in an urban area where many farmers are able to make a living by providing food direct to consumer. I was reminded that many small and mid-size farms across the country do not have direct-to-consumer sales as an option, and are forced to grow commodity crops where they are paid less than the cost to produce and to work within monopolistic corporate systems. 

This book covers antitrust laws through this country’s history and the impact that deregulation has had on food and farming in America. Though I knew that many organic producers have been taken over by giant food conglomerates and that only a handful of corporations control all sectors of our food chain, reading Hauter’s logical explanations of what happens behind the scenes makes you realize that this country has allowed business to be the watchdogs of our public health and welfare.  

Foodopoly also covers genetic tinkering – not just genetic engineering of plants and animals, but synthetic biology and the groups that are trying to use government money to actually create life for profit. Here as in other places in the book, compelling evidence and meticulous research support her arguments. 

The only thing I felt this book lacked was a “now what” at the end. I was waiting for a chapter on practical ways to support the kind of large scale political movement she describes, especially after the book fired me up so passionately about moving beyond just supporting our CSAs and avoiding processed foods, etc. I do have a goal to write to my legislators more often this year, and I’ll continue to try to read up on legislative and judicial instances where public comment is needed. If you’re looking for research and facts to back up the feeling that our system needs to be fixed and not just consumer behavior, Foodopoly is a fantastic place to start.


Real Life CSA: why I’m not sharing what we got this week

This was a big week for us, CSA-wise. A great final meat share from Clarion River Organics and our next-to-the-last produce share from Kretschmann Family Organic Farm.

I usually take photos and gush about all the goodness that we are so blessed to have. But I’m not posting them until next week. Why? Because if the proposed rules for the Food Safety Modernization Act go into effect unchanged, as currently written? There might not be any more Real Life CSA posts. There might be many less small farms, community supported agriculture programs. The farms in our community that we have come to love would have their viability threatened, and who knows how many shares they could support, if any? 

There wouldn’t be any photos of organic greens, because the compost restrictions would make it hard to grow those locally. We wouldn’t benefit from the years of accumulated agricultural knowledge that our farmers carry, because they’d be told to sanitize, sterilize and modernize, with no regard for what that actually means on a practical level. The restrictions on wildlife encroaching on crops? Have these people BEEN to Pennsylvania? Do they think deer will respect property lines?

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review featured Don Kretschmann, the owner of our produce CSA, in an article yesterday that shows you in photos how his farm is threatened by these FSMA rules. Read it. 

Both of our CSAs have spoken up about how it would affect them. Read about it here and here. These are not groups that are typically outspoken about their political views. They’re too busy planting things and harvesting things. But it was important enough for them to take time out to speak up, and we owe them a few minutes of our time to comment in support.

I know I have mentioned this issue and the importance of commenting on these rules many times over the last couple months, and I’ve tweeted about it a lot too. Here’s the thing. Being a CSA subscriber is a great joy for us – and that’s not hyperbole. It’s a privilege to be able to source such wonderful food locally – one that we don’t take for granted. I might not know the technical ins and outs of farming and I’m no food policy expert. I’m just a normal consumer that can’t imagine a summer, or a winter for that matter, without my local farms. 

Americans love to complain about our government. I think we can be disillusioned with the democratic process sometimes, feeling voiceless in the face of what feels like so many things we can’t change. But this is a chance to participate and to use your voice. All the things they taught you in elementary school about government? This is where it comes alive.

For more information on how to comment, TODAY, before it’s too late, visit the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s FSMA section here.

reading this week

Startups Try to Reroute Food Waste to the Hungry (NPR)
Really interesting article about ways to save food that would otherwise be wasted. This is no small feat – but these groups are doing amazing work. One group has saved over 300,000 pounds of food so far!

Whole Foods’ New Produce Ratings: Transparency Bears Fruit (Civil Eats)
Whole Foods is introducing new ratings for their produce and flowers, similar to those used for their meat products. The model is a “good,” “better,” “best system. I really appreciate that these labels won’t just take into account the environmental conditions under which the products are grown, but also the treatment of those people who grow them and harvest them. I’m a huge fan of transparency, and Whole Foods is a leader in this regard.

Scientists Say ‘No Consensus on GMO Food Safety’ (Food Democracy Now)
A group of scientists and physicians released a statement asserting that no scientific consensus has been reached on the safety of GMOs. This is important because many groups are using “science” to back up their positions about the safety and/or danger of GMOs. I actually think that one of the best arguments for GMO labeling is exactly this – we don’t KNOW what GMOs do. So until we do, shouldn’t products be labeled?

FDA Ruling Would All but Eliminate Trans Fats (NY Times)
The FDA has proposed eliminating artificial trans fats, a major known contributor to heart disease. They’d eliminate them by removing the “generally recognized as safe” label and requiring companies to prove they are safe, which is unlikely considering the medical evidence. It’s being lauded as a big step in public health, and it is, but knowing the FDA, it seems like anything can happen.  

Real Life CSA: week 22, produce

Even though the season is winding down, we still get an impressive amount of produce in the share – and not just storage crops.


Going to have a pepper slice-a-thon this weekend and get a bunch frozen for winter fajitas, since we already have enough chili peppers hanging to dry in our kitchen (which you’ve seen if you follow me on Instagram @nextgenhouse)



This is the second week for turnip greens and I’m not disappointed. We ate last week’s turnip greens sauteed with the previous week’s chard as a side dish for the nice dinner we made ourselves on our wedding anniversary this week. Mark’s found a great way to leech the bitterness out is to use a little white wine or broth to allow the greens to cook longer while the liquid evaporates. It also lends a good flavor to them. I’ve never enjoyed bitter greens so much as this season!


More delicious apples this week. Trying to savor these guys every time, knowing we won’t be getting them forever. But a great way to savor great apples through the winter is…


We’re drinking this fresh, but you can also freeze the whole half gallon by pouring off and enjoying about a half a cup to give it room to expand. We had no choice but to drink this fresh anyway, considering our chest freezer is officially packed to capacity. I’m not even sure another molecule of ice could fit in there. (The peppers will have to be shoved in the upstairs freezer. Might have to eat up some ice cream to make room. What a sacrifice.)

Gratuitous slightly unfocused tendril shot!

The radishes and greens will be salad this week, and the potatoes will be stored if we don’t use them as a side. As for the dill, I’m thinking of drying it or preserving it in another way since we are unlikely to use that enormous bunch in one week of recipes.

I’m not sure how many weeks we have left, but I will miss this CSA when it’s done for the season. 

Remember that if you’re in the same boat – that you enjoy your CSA and the fresh variety of foods it brings to your diet, comments are still being accepted on the FDA’s new rules for the Food Safety Modernization Act that threaten small farms and local producers. Read more directly from our CSA about how they would be specifically affected by these potential rules here. You can read my comment and find instructions on how to submit your own here.

Real Life CSA: week 21, produce

Mostly favorites and something brand new this week!


New this week is a giant bunch of turnip greens. The email from the farm says you can cook them like spinach, so they might end up sauteed with some chard.

We eat salad all the time in our house and never get tired of it. Why? Because the ingredients are just so delicious. No waxy peppers or red tinted wilty lettuce. They are always colorful and vibrant and they taste like something. 



Pea shoots are one of the varieties in the mixed greens bag this week. More tendrils!


The giant pile of peppers will probably be cut into strips and frozen for future fajitas.


Don’t forget that comments are open on the FSMA rules until November 15. There’s still time to add your voice. For help on how to do that (and to see the comment I submitted), click here.