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A new law designed to enhance the safety of America’s food supply is speeding through Congress. If passed, it won’t work, but it might in its failure do lasting damage to the quality and healthfulness of the food we eat.

The most far-reaching effect of the bill is a new annual registration fee of $500 in 2009 dollars1 imposed on all producers—effectively killing off small and struggling farms (the bill has an exemption for “farms,” but on closer inspection, the exemption turns out to refer only to those farms that don’t sell any food). The accompanying documentation must be submitted electronically, notwithstanding a farmer’s religious objections, something I suspect the Third Circuit is going to take a rather dim view of.

The actual safety part is addressed by a government-bureaucracy-style labyrinth of hazard analyses and prevention controls that will, like the fee, impose an equal burden on all producers and therefore a proportionately greater burden on smaller producers (that is, Lexcorp Agricultural Enterprises can simply hand the forms off to its Form Filling Out Department, while Ma and Pa Kent have to take time away from their actal lives to do it).

In general, in fact, the bill suffers from the FDA’s tendency to treat small organic farms the same as large conventional ones. The FDA, as Michael Pollan documented in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has a bit of difficulty getting its metaphorical head around the notion that there are ways of doing things other than Big Agri’s. Smaller and organic farms, then, have to scramble to keep up or have to make their case to an unsympathetic government agency.

It’s really kind of a shame, in fact, that many of the people coming out against this bill are crazy. The Farm-To-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which has a rational and lucidly written Web site, is against this billl for the logical reason that ” it would adversely impact small farms and food producers, without providing significant reforms in the industrial food system. [The current version of the FSEA] does not address the underlying causes of food safety problems, including industrial agriculture practices and the consolidation of our food supply.” I mention this because it’s easy enough to discredit a position by noting its adherents’ rants on, say, the government trying to take your car away if you put groceries in it, or Monsanto taking over the FDA.

It’s bad enough that the bill violates the Fourth and Fifth Amendments and threatens small farms and organic food production. Don’t let crazy people scare you into acting against your own interests.

1Or $1000, depending on what Web site you read.

Have you heard the latest outrage by Barack Obama? He’s spending a whole $200 of taxpayer money—enough to buy David Paterson a toaster—to put a vegetable garden on the White House grounds (or, rather, Michelle is, being the woman, because according to the media Y chromosomes apparently interfere with plant growth).

This just demonstrates how little respect Obama has for the institution of the presidency. He’s selfishly using the space for his own personal projects, unlike the putting green built for notorious golf-hater Dwight Eisenhower. From the liberal side, supporters of this have been compared to the Khmer Rouge.

According to the plan of the garden, there will be space for a greater variety of crops than is feasible for the average American (not to mention beehives). However, “green living” isn’t an all-or-nothing propsition; even doing what you can is better than nothing.

Following in the footsteps of popular New York Governor David Paterson and his tax on non-diet soda, a group of Scottish doctors are calling for a tax on chocolate.

This is different from the soda tax for the very important reason that I don’t drink soda and I do eat chocolate. I also need chocolate; six months ago I was underweght by anyone’s standards and my adult weight has varied over a range of 135 pounds. So when the British Medical Association and David Paterson and all such are trying to modify my behavior through tax policy, they are actually acting against my interests.

That’s because there are no panaceas, no nutritional or medical approach that is always and only good for everyone. Is chocolate bad for you? Proabably not, but I know someone who’s allergic to it. On the other hand, there’s some evidence chocolate is actually good for you. That’s not even a contradiction—chocolate, like anything else, contains multitudes. As does the populace

Peanut Corporation of America may have poisoned over 630 Americans before going bankrupt this past weekend—because no one was paying attention. Last fall melamine got into baby formula because no one was watching; now salmonella-tainted peanuts reached shelves because no one was watching

The devil is in the details, of course, as he so often is. While there is strong evidence that the Chinese inspection system was hamstrung by corruption, the inspection system here that missed tainted peanuts simply collapsed under its own weight. As part of the government’s duty to protect its people, there needs to be a better system in place for food safety oversight. Split among the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, and about ten other agencies, American food inspections are an illogical mess that provides no accountability—a problem that was recognized a decade ago (PDF).

Now The New York Times is holding the administration’s feet to the fire on this, calling for President Obama to fulfill his promise “to create a government that does a better job of protecting the American consumer.” New technology, both of government and of food production, makes it possible and necessary to coordinate and consolidate inspection dutiesin a way that we could not have dreamed of a generation ago. This is an important step to secure the safety of all Americans when we’re universally vulnerable.

Caffeine Molecule

Caffeine Molecule

I, winner that I am, don’t do drugs—except for alcohol and caffeine. I try to watch my alcohol intake, but having been raised on a diet of soda, I pay little attention to how much caffeine I have (though I’ve largely stopped drinking soda).

Whille I’m one of those people who feels caffeine is somewhat the point of coffee, I acknowledge there’s a health benefit to cutting back, particularly for expectant mothers. That’s why it’s possible to get decaf, and to test the caffeine content of your drinks. The product is essentially a pregnancy test for coffee, looking for caffeine by causing a chemical reaction.

Now it’s possible to be sure you’re not getting too much . . . or too little.

I like to cook. A large portion of my bookshelf space is devoted to cookbooks and books on food. So I was drawn to this New York Times story about cooking with Shirley O. Corriher.

I actually have Cookwise (er, somewhere; that was a metaphorical bookshelf I was referring to up there), as well as Harold McGee’s On Food and Coking, also mentioned in the article. One thing I find interesting about their work is the focus on science, the key to which is replicability.

That’s because cooking is a science; in particular, it’s mostly chemistry. The task of the cook is to facilitate chemical reactions (there’s also physics and biology—e.g., yeast used in baking). And science is repeatable.

Too often the words “science” and “cooking” call to mind Ferran Adrià and his ilk, turning olives into olive-flavored green spheroids and the like. In fact, Corriher says, all cooking is science:

I see a little technical information as liberating, something that enhances creativity. If you know the limiting factors in a recipe, you’re free to go wild with the rest.

That said, of course, cooking is older than science as we know it and the scientific method. However, knowing how it all works is useful in perfecting and improving traditional recipes—and creating new ones.


Looks like The Not Scientist independently read the same article and felt the same way. Howdy!

In an effort to trim the fat from the state budget (due April 1), Governor David Paterson is proposing a number of new regressive taxes, including one on soda. This isn’t really a bad idea, since soda is a popular product with fairly inelastic demand, and a relatively modest tax will provide a steady flow of revenue.

Unless people drink diet soda. It turns out this brilliant plan to close the budget gap is not ostensibly intended to raise money. No, no, Albany is kindly worried about my health1. This new tax on non-diet soda is intended to keep the fat fatsos who populate New York2 from being so fucking fat.

There are a couple of problems with this. First, tax policy is neither an effective nor a proper technique for shaping behavior. Taxation is not an end run around freedom. Taxes are how the government raises money, nothing more

Second, the direct connection between weight and health is probably bullshit, and studies supporting it are typically produced by (unconsciously) biased researchers. Not all fat folks are unhealthy, and being fat doesn’t make you (or anyone) unhealthy. Many people who acknowledge this counter that being fat doesn’t cause illness but constitutes it. This is a complete departure from what constitutes physical illness in most other contexts.

Third, soda doesn’t make you fat. Researchers are regularly discovering hormones, enzymes, or viruses that are implicated in weight.

Fatness is not a crime, and it’s not an expense, and a recession is the last time we should be using taxes to shape people’s lifestyle habits.

1Well, not my health, because I’ve largely stopped drinking soda, but other people’s health.
2And who populate New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, or Vermont and work in New York, and who follow the Canadiens or Maple Leafs or Senators3 to HSBC Arena, and who come as tourists, and. . . .
3I don’t know where Ottowa is.

Want some space beer?

Sounds like the perfect refreshment for a MST3K marathon, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s a fine product of the Sapporo brewery, reports Science, Not Fiction.

This strange brew is made from barley sent into space as part of an ongoing experiment to see if food can be grown in space. If successful, this can eliminate an obstacle for long-term—and distant—missions.

Now if only there was some way to watch the game.

Today’s Times brings us the tale of Dr. Alan Greene, a pediatrician in California who strove to have himself certified organic.

Organic foods in the United States are certified under rules developed by the National Organic Program of the USDA, though the actual certification is done by private groups that may be for-profit. If a product bears the seal, it means at least 95% of the ingredients are organic, a designation that presumably includes (filtered) water. For an ingredient to be organic, it needs to be raised without antibiotics or hormones or grown without pesticides or artificial fertilizer (as appropriate) and producers—a loaded word, that—must follow soil and water conservation procedures and treat animals with a minimum of humaneness. I was surprised to learn that; I hadn’t realized organic meat was antibiotic-free. Michael Pollan notes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that antibiotics are needed to produce maketable meat from cattle raised on a maize-based diet because cattle do not thrive on a maize-based diet.

The system isn’t perfect. For often perfectly benign reasons, regulations such as those for organic foods tend to be written and enforced to favor industry. The cost of certification—not organic practices, maintaining the paper trail and paying the inspectors—can be more easily borne by large businesses.

The biggest problem is that the regulations govern technique, not outcome. So the oregano you grow in your window box or the tomatoes you grow in your garden are not organic, no matter what you did or didn’t do in growing them. More seriously, a farm such as Polyface in Virginia can’t be certified because it’s a lot of frankly unnecessary work to maintain the necessary records. Organic livestock has to eat only organic foods for three years, just as Dr. Greene did, and they won’t just take the farmer’s word for it. This doesnt mean the farm doesn’t operate under principles that I, at least, trust will produce food that’s no less healthful or sustainable than the duly inspected products of the nutrition industry.

One benefit of the system, however: when you eat organic, you know what you’re getting, which is more than you can say for processed foods.

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