Proposed FDA rules – speak up to support local farms!

In support of the Food Safety Modernization Act, the FDA is creating new rules which threaten small farms, sustainable and organic agriculture and farm conservation efforts and the environment. According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), the new rules as currently written will “put many farms out of business, reduce the supply of fresh, local produce in schools and hospitals, push farmers to tear out wildlife habitat, and increase the use of chemicals rather than natural fertilizers.”

A comment period is open until November 15, and it’s important that we speak out to support the farms that supply the food we enjoy so much and that make this area of the country so agriculturally vibrant. (Despite the government shutdown, comments are still accepted on the FDA website.)
Using a template provided by the NSAC, I wrote my own customized comment to submit. You can find more information on the proposed rules, as well as instructions for how to submit your comment on this special website

Feel free to copy my comment that appears below or write your own – but either way, speak up. Every voice matters – and if you’ve enjoyed a CSA this season, part of that “community support” is to stand beside farmers and to do what’s right for them and our community and environment.

Follow NSAC on Twitter at @sustainableag for the latest updates – spread the word! 

Re: Preventive Controls Rule: FDA-2011-N-0920, Produce Standards Rule: FDA-2011-N-0921

I am a concerned consumer, parent, entrepreneur, etc. writing because I am concerned about the impact that FDA’s proposed FSMA rules will have on the farms where I source my food, as well as the environment and my local economy. I ask you to ensure that new regulations do not put family farms out of business, harm farmers’ soil, water, and wildlife conservation efforts, or shut down the growth of local and regional healthy food systems!

My family subscribes to community supported agriculture programs from local farms, which enables us to have access to the freshest, healthiest produce, grown without practices that harm farm workers or the environment. These small businesses are not just an asset to our local economy, but an asset to the health and well being of our community members. Many local farms donate produce to needy families or offer reduced price shares and give back to the community that supports them in many ways. They also allow us to purchase healthy food without the extra markup from conventional stores, adding an economic benefit – the money stays entirely in our community instead of benefiting out of state or out of country corporations. These farms are in indispensable part of our region and my own life. 

I urge you to modify the rules so that they:
•    Allow farmers to use sustainable farming practices, including those already allowed and encouraged by existing federal organic standards and conservation programs. Specifically, FDA must not exceed the strict standards for the use of manure and compost used in certified organic production and regulated by the National Organic Program.

•    Ensure that diversified and innovative farms, particularly those pioneering models for increased access to healthy, local foods, continue to grow and thrive without being stifled. Specifically, FDA needs to clarify two key definitions: first, as Congress required, FDA must affirm that farmers markets, CSAs, roadside stands, and other direct-to-consumer vendors fall under the definition of a “retail food establishment” and are therefore not facilities subject to additional regulation. Second, FDA should adopt at least the $1,000,000 threshold for a very small business and base it on the value of ‘regulated product,’ not ‘all food,’ to ensure smaller farms and businesses (like food hubs) fall under the scale-appropriate requirements and aren’t subject to high cost, industrial-scale regulation.

•    Provide options that treat family farms fairly, with due process and without excessive costs. Specifically, FDA must clearly define the “material conditions” that lead to a withdrawal of a farmer’s protected status in scientifically measurable terms. FDA must also outline a clear, fair, process for justifying the withdrawal of a farmer’s protected status and for how a farmer can regain that status.

waste not, want not – 5 tips to reduce waste

After thoroughly purging and organizing the belongings in just one room of our house this weekend, I got to thinking about waste – specifically how much space has been wasted in our house and also what opportunities are wasted when we store belongings away that could be useful for someone else, if not for us.

Recently, my coworker told me about hearing a news report about the amount of food that is wasted because of expiration dates and labels. Her church organizes a food pantry and is not able to serve or give away food that is “past dated” – even if it’s perfectly safe, edible and even delicious. On one hand, I understand why this guidance is in place for groups that are serving large amounts of people – you don’t want to gamble with people’s safety when you are responsible for others, particularly vulnerable populations. But unfortunately, the dates and labels themselves are misleading.

According to the study that has been reported recently, 90% of Americans say they have prematurely thrown out food because they misinterpreted the labels and dates on the package. These labels are generally suggestions from the manufacturers about peak freshness, not suitability for consumption. According to the same article, “in 2012, an NRDC study found as much as 40 percent of the country’s food supply goes uneaten. The cost of that wasted food? Roughly $165 billion, including $900 million in “expired” food. A family of four, the study found, spends an average of $455 a year on food it doesn’t eat.” (emphasis mine) We should look at those numbers and find them unpalatable (no pun intended).

That’s a staggering amount of food waste, especially when industrial agriculture is trying to tell us that they need to produce more to feed the world. We already produce more food than this country needs (not to mention that this country eats more calories a day than it needs to). The reason we have hunger issues in this country is not production – it’s distribution and access.

So what can you do? Here are five strategies we use in our house.

1. Plan your meals.
Each week, we plan out what we’re going to make for dinner and estimate the leftovers to determine lunches. This allows us to have a very good idea of what we can eat in a week’s time and to know exactly what we will need on a given day. We check what we have in our pantry and refrigerator when we are choosing meals – and even have our freezer contents in a shared spreadsheet so we can keep track of what’s hiding at the bottom!

2. Make a shopping list and stick to it.
Use your meal plan to determine what you need for the week and make a list. When you go to the store, don’t veer from the list. We make exceptions when pantry staples are on sale and we can stock up at a savings, but we only buy things we know we will use. If you go to the store without a plan, you’ll buy things that you feel like eating when you’re there, but you might not want to eat later on. You also run the risk of not buying the right quantities. 

3. Buy from the bulk section when you can – and buy only what you need.
We buy spices from the bulk section, as well as grains like oats and rice and dried fruits and nuts for granola. Usually the prices are lower in general than buying the items in a commercially packaged container, but it also helps you only buy what you can use at its peak of freshness. Spices lose their potency over time, so it’s better to buy 4 tablespoons of ginger at a time for a small container at home than enough ginger for a bakery from a warehouse store.

4. Smell and look at your food.
Your milk says “best by 10-8.” It’s past October 8, so instead of getting rid of it immediately, open the container and smell it. You will know when milk has “gone off” or spoiled. We’ve had containers of sour cream we’ve used a month after the “best by” date – no mold, spoilage or nasty smells indicates that it’s safe to eat. The benefit of eating a diet of whole foods is that you’re eating things that are designed to go bad. (We’ve all seen the photos of fast food cheeseburgers that have been petrified for 30 years but somehow never spoiled.) Fruit and vegetables? They rot. Bread molds and so does cheese. Meat rots – in a terribly smelly way. Your food will “let you know” when it’s not safe to eat anymore. (Remember that this is the way that people determined whether or not their food was safe before the advent of the government labels.)

5. Consider labels to be guidelines and not rules.
Go ahead and use the dates as a guideline – but they aren’t rules. You can just as easily get a container of yogurt from the store, open it before the “sell by” date and find mold as you can if the date has passed. Don’t throw away perfectly good food because someone 8 weeks ago estimated that it might not be quite so fresh after a certain point. You will see a difference in your budget when you do!

October Simplified update: Listed about 50 books for sale that had the potential to help me recoup some cost and packed up the rest to donate and repurposed mismatched sheets as drop cloths for Mark’s wood working space. Up next, the guest bedroom!

reading this week

I’m still processing all that I learned and saw at the Mother Earth News Fair, but look for recaps on that soon. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve been reading this week.

The USDA recently changed the process of exempting prohibited substances in foods labeled as organic, without having any public comment period. Previously, prohibited substances were given five year periods in which they could be exempted, while alternatives could be found. After that period, they’d expire unless a two-thirds majority of the National Organic Standards Board allowed it, AFTER a public comment period. 

Now, all of that has been erased and these substances can be allowed indefinitely, and with no public comment period, outside of the public view. Not only does it weaken the already relatively weak organic standards, but it pulls more of our food processes behind closed door and decreases transparency.  

CDC’s thoroughly convincing report on the threat of antibiotic resistance (Food Politics)
A great infographic on how antibiotic resistance is created, plus links to other stories explaining the issue.

A Washington state farmer’s alfalfa crop has been found to contain a GMO trait, which has stopped him from being able to export it (as European nations have much more strict laws regulating GMOs than the U.S.). How this plays out will be interesting, though I’d venture to guess the government will not go out of its way to protect the farmer.

Factory Food From Above: Satellite Images of Industrial Farms (Wired)
Enhanced images from satellites of the feedlots that house industrial meat production

Food banks are a ‘slow death of the soul’ (The Guardian)
A really interesting take on food pantries from someone who runs one. What he does? It’s my dream job. I was asked once in a job interview what my dream would be, and I said if I had capital, I’d open a food pantry that was a community garden and had cooking and gardening classes. To help people get on their feet and empower them to make good choices.

10 Reasons for Gardeners to Love Chickens (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Self-explanatory. :)

natural nonsense: why ‘natural’ is meaningless marketing

When you see or hear the word “natural,” what comes to mind? Something connected to the earth, unadulterated and in its ‘default’ state of being? Images of nature? Thoughts about health and wellness? Do you get an innate sense that “natural” is a good thing, in opposition to “unnatural”?

You do? Congratulations, you’re a marketer’s dream come true.

The federal government, through the USDA, certifies the term “organic” and regulates its usage. To label something “organic,” complex standards have to be met. Primarily this includes the method of production (no GMOs, ionizing radiation or sewage sludge), the items used in production (only those on the nationally approved list, e.g. no chemical pesticides) and inspection by a USDA certifying agent. You can read more about it here.  

There currently exists no standardized, legally enforceable definition of “natural.” Several agencies have tried over the years to define it, but industry push-back has succeeded in squashing those attempts. Why? Because if consumers equate “natural” with “organic” anyway, why would Big Food go to the expense of certification and paperwork and better sourcing of ingredients? They can make a better profit margin by calling something “natural” and getting the consumer to buy it because they think it’s a superior product, when in fact, it’s not at all.

Recently lawsuits have been brought against the companies that produce Naked Juice, 7Up, Vitamin Water charging them with misleading or false advertising for claiming their products are “all-natural” when they included additives. Naked Juice just agreed to settle their large class action this month. On the surface, this is great for consumers because it’s bringing awareness to the use of the term “natural” on products. But it doesn’t stop other companies from using it or work toward a legally enforceable definition. A suit ending in settlement doesn’t create any legal precedent. This article from Salon further explains these lawsuits.

So we’ll keep seeing products like this on the market:

Yes, those are Natural Cheetos. Just think about that for a second. Natural. Cheetos.

You don’t have to turn away all products that claim to be “natural,” though. Instead of signaling you to walk away, read the label. Do the ingredients listed seem appropriate and recognizable to you? Do you see corn or soy as one of the ingredients? If so, it’s probably GMO, unless the label says it is certified non-GMO. Common sense is your ally – call it the natural Cheetos test.

Another movement is happening to bring meaning to the term “natural” outside of government regulating – called Certified Naturally Grown (CNG). Primarily for the produce and livestock industries, it’s a grassroots effort designed to help small farms and producers who sell their products locally get credit for the ways they produce without having to go to the expense of the national organic program. 

According to their website, to be Certified Naturally Grown, “farmers don’t use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified organisms. CNG livestock are raised mostly on pasture and with space for freedom of movement. Feed must be grown without synthetic inputs or genetically modified seeds.”

CNG farms are inspected by other farmers and all records are available for public viewing.

I’ve started to see CNG products more and more in this area. In particular, Marty’s Market in the Strip District carries produce from local farms that are CNG. (And they have a rockin’ brunch too. Check them out.)

All consumer products, particularly those purchased from a grocery stores and not directly from a producer, have a level of marketing. Big Food spends millions upon millions of dollars every year trying to manipulate your behavior through advertising and marketing – not just on the TV but in the stores and on the packages. Some of the things they tell you are true, but others are only true by the best possible legal stretch of the imagination. (For a fascinating book about this, read Sugar Salt Fat by Michael Moss which I reviewed here.)

By reading the labels of the foods you buy and consume, you’re taking the control back from those companies and not buying blindly. Don’t be a sucker for “health washing” – the trend of making items appear to be more healthy than they are. Remember that the healthiest foods – the clean, whole foods – don’t need marketing to convince you they are healthy. 

Or a creepy cartoon cheetah.

the known and unknown of GMOs

I’ve written about GMOs before and explained why I subscribe to the “harmful until proven safe” mentality as opposed to “safe until proven harmful” when it comes to my foods. This is one reason why I support mandatory labeling of GMO products. An interesting study was released recently which sheds more light on problematic GMOs.

Headlines appeared everywhere, calling the new study “alarming” and “groundbreaking.” The basic conclusion of the study? Pigs fed a diet of GMO grains were more likely to suffer from stomach inflammation and had heavier uteri, which is a sign of conditions that could affect their fertility. Anti-GMO groups hailed this as one of the studies they’d been waiting for that showed an adverse health effect on animals that we consume and not just animals in laboratories like rats. Industry leaders were quick to denounce the study and its research methodology. So who’s right?

Well, both. First of all, the scientific journal that reported the study is called the Journal of Organic Systems. One of their sponsors is the Organic Federation of Australia. Organic producers are often looked at as the “good guys” in agriculture, and I definitely am grateful for their contributions, as our family eats as organic as possible. However, organic producers are often corporations whose primary motivation is profit, not the health of consumers. So it’s in the best interest of organic food producers to have studies that show that GMOs are harmful. Since no GMO ingredients are allowed to be in any product labeled certified organic, they have a vested monetary interest in supporting labeling efforts and fighting GMOs. Because of this, research they sponsor is as tainted by suspicions of bias as the research that Monsanto backs saying GMOs are truly safe. The editorial boards of scientific journals are often made up of individuals who have a corporate interest on one side or the other.

The fact remains that there are very few studies (and virtually no long-term studies) on the health effects of GMOs at all, let alone truly independent, third-party studies. Why? Because the producers of these GMO seeds (ahem, Monsanto) have such strict patents on the technology that they are unobtainable for outside research. Growers are made to sign contracts stating that they won’t perform any research on seeds. So when someone wants to do a study, they have to buy retail products made from GMO plants and can’t directly grow their own.

Because companies like Monsanto have those intellectual property rights and are only required to do voluntary safety consultations on their products, there is currently no real or independent safety testing on GMOs. And there’s where the problem is. We need independent safety testing and we need long-term studies to begin. Because right now, when you eat a product that contains GMO ingredients, the safety testing is being performed on you as a consumer without your informed consent.

And this is why labeling is so vitally important. Let Monsanto grow all the GMO products it wants. Let the consumers be informed and make decisions about what they eat. Tell consumers the truth. Right now, we don’t know if GMOs are truly dangerous or unsafe. And until Monsanto stops hiding behind intellectual property laws and opens up their seeds for independent testing, we won’t know.

I’ve even thought that a label similar to the one that appears on dairy products would be appropriate. If a company wants to label their milk rBGH-free, they also run a disclaimer saying that the government has found no difference between milk from cows treated with rBGH and those that weren’t. I appreciate the information, and choose as a consumer to not consume dairy with rBGH in it anyway. Because it’s my right.

GMO labeling initiatives are starting to make headway in America as many states have bills up for consideration in their legislatures. Here in Pennsylvania, a bill was introduced in the Pa. Senate in March called “An Act Requiring the Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food” (SB653). It is now in the Agricultural & Rural Affairs Committee. Surprisingly enough, PA is third in the nation for organic agriculture production, so I’m hoping that enough of a push exists to protect that industry that this bill will make it for full consideration. I plan on contacting my senators again on this one.

Here are some resources on the fight for mandatory GMO labeling:

GMO Free PA: Resources on the fight in Pennsylvania
Twitter @GMOFreePA

Right to Know GMO: Resources for each state
Twitter @RighttoKnowGMO

Just Label It: National campaign for GMO labeling
Twitter @Justlabelit

raw milk: beyond the hype

A lot of topics in the world of food politics and safety can get people’s feathers ruffled, but one of the subjects that seems to bring out the most vitriol and judgment is raw milk. Let me state unequivocally that raw milk is not for everyone and no one should ever be pressured into eating something that makes them uncomfortable or denied the right to eat what they want. This is just one person’s perspective on why raw milk is what we drink in our house. 

Raw milk is exactly what it sounds like – milk straight out of the cow. Unpasteurized and unhomogenized. Before you can understand why raw milk is different, you have to understand the difference between pasteurization and homogenization.  

Pasteurization refers to the process of heating milk to a particular temperature to destroy pathogens. All milk that you will buy in the store is pasteurized, at least in Pennsylvania. (Other states have different laws.) Pasteurization does kill harmful bacteria in milk, but it also removes the good bacteria that are present, and it removes vitamins that are also naturally present. Thus, when you see milk labeled “enriched with vitamin this and that” it means that vitamins were added back in after processing.

Homogenization is a process that uses immense pressure to emulsify the fat and water in milk. In whole milk, the cream will rise to the top, leaving what we know as 2% milk underneath. To get whole milk, you shake the container to redistribute the cream back in. Alternatively, you pull the cream from the top and use it separately, and drink the 2% milk. Americans don’t like to have to deal with the separating parts of milk, and they prefer to have options of varying levels of fat, so homogenization was born. Pressure is applied to the milk, which homogenizes it (after whatever amount of fat/cream is removed from the milk.) 
You can drink pasteurized milk that isn’t homogenized, and you won’t be taking any of the risks associated with drinking raw milk, which is the potential for harmful bacteria. This is why the CDC recommends that you only drink pasteurized milk. But at Next Gen House, we don’t. And here’s why.
While it is true that every time you drink raw milk you are taking the chance that some bad bacteria could be in there and could make you sick, this chance is incredibly small when you source your raw milk like we do – you don’t have to worry about sanitary conditions as much as you do when you have hundreds of cows smashed together and sharing the same milking equipment. Plus, we know that our farmer milks that same cow to provide milk for his own family. He has more reasons besides profit to make sure the milk is safe.
Other reasons I drink raw milk include:

(1) I try to eat my foods as minimally processed as possible, which means I only drink whole milk and I prefer it not to be homogenized. I am perfectly capable of shaking a bottle. 

(2) I want the benefit of the vitamins and “good bacteria” that are naturally present in milk, particularly because of my digestive issues and the fact that I cannot eat fiber supplements or many high-fiber foods due to my thyroid medication. 

(3) I like the taste of raw milk and how it varies slightly through the seasons, as the cow is eating different foods and plants. 

(4) Whether or not I will continue to drink raw milk for my entire life, I believe in the right of people to eat what they want, and will support people’s rights to drink raw milk. I know the risks and choose to take them, just as other people take risks every day by consuming alcohol, driving a car or smoking cigarettes. I don’t really think the risk of raw milk is akin to smoking a cigarette, but the point remains that the government does not control all risks a person can take to his/her bodily health, thus it should stay out of my milk choices.

(5) Quite simply, it lasts longer when it comes straight out of the cow.  

Cubicle activism

My ultimate point is that not every person who drinks raw milk is a back to the earth hippie who thinks that raw milk is a cure-all for every last disease on the planet. It’s milk, people. I’ve seen the videos of people who practically worship at the altar of raw milk and I think they’re nuts. BUT, frankly, I’m more scared of what’s in industrial meat than I am of what’s in my raw milk. But beyond all the hype and the fear mongering, there are solid reasons why a person would make the choice to drink raw milk and there are solid reasons why a person would choose to only drink pasteurized milk.

Raw milk isn’t for everyone. When I bake for people or for parties, I use pasteurized, non-homogenized milk from Manchester Farms, because I don’t feel like I have the right to make the choice of raw vs. pasteurized milk for other people. It’s all about what risks you are willing to take, and that is not something that one person can decide for another. 

Crossing lines we said we’d never cross

You may have heard some news recently about a so-called “Monstanto Protection Act” that was an Agricultural Appropriations Bill (HR 933) that contained a provision (in section 735) allowing companies to harvest GMO seeds, even if an injunction or other litigation is pending against them.
Watch as John Stewart brilliantly sums it up for us. You stuck what where now?
It should be noted that Senator John Tester (Democrat, Montana) stood up against this provision and called it out for what it was. At the time of this episode of the Daily Show, no one had fessed up to including the provision. Later, Senator Roy Blunt (Republican, Missouri) came forward saying he worked with Monsanto and was responsible for its inclusion. This is no surprise, as he is known to be a friend of Big Ag and has lobbyist ties to other processed food companies that do not support GMO labeling. He gets plenty of money in his war chest from Monsanto. (To read more on Monsanto, check out Food & Water Watch’s Monsanto: A Corporate Profile.)
All of the issues with GMO labeling and Big Ag aside, it makes me so utterly disappointed in our government that anonymous, secret riders can be snuck into any bill, particularly one that would avert a government shutdown, which are almost inevitably going to be signed into law. It represents the highest level of corruption, greed and fraud that politicians can be bought. It wasn’t even just votes that were bought on an issue that was out in the open, but Monsanto effectively purchased a law that benefits their business to the detriment of the environment and our health, behind everyone’s back. Even when Senator Tester stood up, not enough people listened. Our government is for sale to the highest bidder.
When you are making your choices about what kind of fertilizer to buy for your garden this summer, look into who makes those products. Are you buying Monsanto products (RoundUp, Scots, etc.)? If so, you’re helping to subsidize the purchase of our government. You might not think $20 here and there matters, but until Americans start standing up one by one and saying “here is the line and I will not cross it,” we can expect these companies to continue to buy their way into our government.
This probably sounds melodramatic. But I truly believe this is how democracy vanishes. Crossing the lines we said we’d never cross.