andrew schneider investigates

May 29, 2009

As money becomes tighter, organic food becomes expendable for many.

I’ve been hearing from organic food producers, especially dairy farmers, who say that after years of soaring growth and markets for all they can produce, the reality of dealing with rough economic times is painfully hitting home.

(c) photo by a. schneider
(c) photo by a. schneider

They say that sales they could always count on, are falling off.

But many shopper are more carefully weighing the presumed quality of organics with the cost.

“I want the best for my children but I know I can get this for half the price at the chain groceries. Four or five dollars make a difference these days,” said a woman I chatted with yesterday at Whole Foods who was holding a head of organic lettuce in one hand and tomatoes in the other.

I’m going to hit some farmer’s markets this weekend to talk to some producers but as one farmer told me recently, he’d spent so much money bringing his farm up to organic standards that even a drop of five or 10 percent in his sales can close him down.

If you want to read more on this, Katie Zezma wrote a really well-researched piece in today’s New York Times.  Here’s a link to it.


April 2, 2009

Japanese scientists have figured out that chicken soup may be the secret to controlling high blood pressure.

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Good food,Random observations — Andrew Schneider @ 08:23

Of course we all know that chicken soup – “Grandma’s Penicillin” – is good for curing much of what ails you. Some of us have passed the secret of this liquid medical wonder on for generations without really knowing from where its medicinal value comes.

My great grandmother would add several cloves of garlic to boost the healing power of her deep yellow brew.

Over the years, the chicken soup has been proven to have antibacterial and antiviral properties and boosts the immune system. In the 1990s, a physician from the University of Nebraska brought his wife’s chicken soup into the laboratory, tested it with white blood cells and showed that there were naturally occurring chemicals which could clear stuffy nose by stopping inflammation of the cells in the nasal passages.

In today’s edition of the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Japanese scientists document more important benefits.

Chicken soup with matzo ball from New York City;s 2nd Ave. Deli     photo by A.Schneider

Chicken soup with matzo ball from New York City;s 2nd Ave. Deli photo by A.Schneider

Dr. Ai Saiga and his colleagues report that the popular home remedy for the common cold may have a new role in fighting high blood pressure.

They found that the key ingredient might be the chicken’s legs and feet. The journal confirms what those of us who watched our grandmothers cook already new. The yellow feet were a key ingredient for flavor, but today, in the U.S., they are often discarded as waste. But elsewhere, cooks wouldn’t consider cooking a chicken soup without adding the feet as key ingredients.

In their testing, Saiga and his team extracted collagen from chicken legs and tested its ability to act as an ACE inhibitor – a vasodilator used in the treatment of hypertension and heart failure by causing the arteries to widen.

According to the journal, the scientists identified four different proteins in the collagen mixture with high ACE-inhibitory activity. And, when given to rats used to model human high blood pressure, the proteins produced a significant and prolonged decrease in blood pressure.

The Japanese team did not evaluate whether the addition of matzo balls increased the soup’s therapeutic value. However, since chicken soup with matzo balls is a staple served at the Jewish holiday of Passover (which begins April 8) home scientists may have the opportunity to do their own testing – or is that tasting?

Here’s a link to the journal article.

January 11, 2009

The 11 Best Foods You Aren’t Eating

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Good food — Andrew Schneider @ 10:40

I take great pleasure in pointing out to my readers the most interesting, important or relevant stories I stumble across as I read what my colleagues everywhere are writing.

In that spirit, I offer this blog posting from The New York Times from June that answers a question that I get asked two or three times a week, and that is: What are the most healthful foods to eat?

Yes. I love to cook for my friends, but as my girth makes clear, I’m far from a nutritionist. But Jonny Bowden is. He gave a Times blogger his list of “The 11 Best Foods You Aren’t Eating,” and here’s a bit of it. Check out the link for more detail.

Beets: Bowden says to “think of beets as red spinach.”

Cabbage: Loaded with nutrients such as sulforaphane, a chemical said to boost cancer-fighting enzymes.

Swiss chard: A leafy green vegetable packed with carotenoids that protect aging eyes.

Cinnamon: May help control blood sugar and cholesterol.

Pomegranate juice: Appears to lower blood pressure and is loaded with antioxidants.

Dried plums: Packed with antioxidants.

Pumpkin seeds: The most nutritious part of the pumpkin and packed with magnesium.

Sardines: They are high in omega-3s, contain virtually no mercury and are loaded with calcium. They also contain iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese as well as a full complement of B vitamins.

Turmeric: The deep-yellow spice may have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.

Blueberries: Associated with better memory in animal studies.

Canned pumpkin: The low-calorie vegetable is high in fiber and immune-stimulating vitamin A.

My suggestion is to make sure your spices are fresh and your veggies are well-washed.

Good eating.

December 31, 2008

Chinese honey seeps through U.S. border.

I know. I have done a horrible job of keeping the blog active and interesting and many have expressed your views on my laziness or concerns on my demise. For the past few months I have been on the road chasing several stories that raised possible public health issues.

We finally got one into print and on to the web. It’s called “Honey Laundering,” and this is a link to a collection of the six stories.

Honey? A public health concern?

Bizarre. I agree.

But in answer to several dozen e-mails, allow me to chat a bit on how and why I did the stories.

It started innocently enough, as many complex stories do. One of my colleagues – our brilliant port reporter � mention that a friend had bought a jar of honey with “Product of Washington State,” on the label and wasn’t sure whether it was even real honey.

I called around to the analytical laboratories that we usually use to test “things” for contaminants. Even though the P-I’s ($$$$$) lab bills have sent the offspring of the labs’ owners to fine, private universities, they all said they didn’t have the technology to tell us the geographic source of the flowers the bees hit up for the honey.

So I called an old friend in a federal lab near DC and she lamented that none of the government labs could answer that questions and gave me the names of three civilian labs in Texas, Massachusetts and Oregon that analyze honey samples for the feds.

Huh? Why is our government testing honey anyhow?

I called the labs and yes, they said, they do test honey for the government � for things like adulteration � where liquids and sweet syrups � corn, cane, rice and others � are added to dilute pure honey into something much, much cheaper to produce and that brings in a significantly higher profit.

More importantly, they also said they test for a cheap animal antibiotic called chloramphenicol, which can cause serious illness or death among a very small percentage of people exposed to it. And sometimes other antibiotics called iprofloxacin and Enrofloxacin.

Finally, I got it through my thick skull that what they were testing, in almost all cases, was foreign honey. I had no clue that U.S. bees produce about only a third of the honey we consume.

This is how we got the story:

The information came from about 180 plus interviews, 422 e-mails, elaborate databases of thousands of ocean shipping documents from Import-Genus and Trade-Mining LLC. Daniel Lathrop’s (our computer guru) skillful manipulations of customs and Commerce Department tallies of honey shipments crossing the Canadian and Mexican borders and Aubrey Cohen, our real estate wizard, who translated Russian letters and customs documents.

However, the truth would never have shown through without help and patience of lots of beekeepers, honey importers and packers, apiculturists, some federal agents who help sort through misinformation being shoveled by their Washington headquarters. Especially surprising was the help offered in Canada, Russia, Thailand, Vietnam, India and Australia from honey brokers and producers, Foreign and U.S. overseas trade and ICE officials, and honey associations.

I encountered some really amazing people, and I’ll write a bit about some of them in coming days.

For those of you who don’t want to wade through the stories, here are the points they make: Most U.S. and Canadian honey is of high quality and safe; the large majority of honey consumed in the U.S. is imported; millions of pounds of Chinese honey destine for the U.S., is transshipped and frequently mislabeled as coming from a different foreign country; some importers and honey packers are in on the con; federal investigators and some large honey importer say they still find Chinese honey tainted with illegal medications; FDA, USDA and customs agents have far too much on their plates to pay much attention to honey and only a smallest fraction of honey seeping through out borders is ever tested.

So I ask myself why did I spend so long on a topic that presents � when compared to other issues � such a benign risk?

This comment from David Westervelt, one of Florida State’s 15 highly trained apiculture inspectors, may explain my concern:

“Someday, some really harmful honey will be shipped into this country, and a lot of people will get sick or worse – and then the government will do something about it,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to wait for people to get sick.”

November 13, 2008

Engineered corn causes reduced fertility

Want something new to worry about?

A study released this week by the Austrian government shows that Monsanto’s genetically engineered corn will reduce fertility � at least in laboratory mice.

The Center for Food Safety said the “important study” funded by the Austrian Ministry of The Health, Families, and Youth “is cause for great concern over the long-term consumption of genetically engineered crops.”

Bill Freese, the science policy analyst for the center said: “It’s no surprise to us that U.S. regulators did not catch this. None of our regulatory agencies require any long-term animal feeding trials before allowing genetically engineered crops on the market.

“The FDA must stop letting biotech companies self-certify their (modified) crops as safe, and instead establish strict, mandatory testing requirements, including long-term animal feeding trials,” he added.

I asked the USDA and FDA whether this is correct, but they haven’t gotten back to me yet.

For 20 weeks, Dr. J�rgen Zentek, veterinary medicine professor at the University of Vienna, and his team fed mice diets consisting of either 33 percent genetically engineered corn or the same amount of corn that wasn’t messed with by Monsanto.

The study found that mice fed the GE corn diet had fewer litters, fewer total offspring, and more females with no offspring, than mice feed the conventional corn.

The scientist attributed the reduced fertility to the engineered corn feed, and said it might be related to unintended effects of the genetic modification process. Zentek said that further studies are “urgently needed” to corroborate his team’s findings.

Monsanto modified the corn to survive direct spraying with its Roundup herbicide, while a built-in insecticide kills certain

“This study should serve as a wake-up call to governments around the world that genetically engineered foods could cause long-term health damage,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center, a nonprofit food-safety advocacy organization,

He added: “The center calls upon national and international authorities to place a moratorium on the distribution of GE products for human consumption unless or until their safety can be undeniably established.”

Here is a link to an English version of the study so you can evaluate for yourself.

This just in from Monsanta:

The St. Louis-based, worldwide supplier of chemicals and engineered seeds, reacted quckly to comments Greenpeace made on the Austrian study.

The chemical giant pointed out that the study was not peer-reviewed and was “inconsistent with over a decade of reputable, peer-reviewed, scientific studies, including multi-generational studies, which demonstrate and confirm the safety of GM crops.”

Jerry Hjelle, a Monsanto VP, said that activist groups for years have attempted to call into question the safety of biotech crops.

“The safety of our products is our utmost priority,” he said. “We are already examining the on-line report along with other evidence assessing the safety of GM corn.”

Huh. Okay.

November 12, 2008

Better food inspections needed

Concerns over food safety appears to be one more thing that Americans want shoved onto President-elect Obama’s overflowing plate to make their government more responsive.

According to a poll by Consumer Reports, the vast majority of citizens want “Country of Origin Labeling” loopholes closed and the Food and Drug Administration to inspect the domestic and foreign food supply every month.

Some of the people rumored to be on Obama’s short list to head the FDA have publicly supported this type of increased surveillance in speeches and articles.

“The American public wants to know more about their food, where it comes from, how safe it is, and will vote with their dollars to support highly meaningful labels,” says Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist and policy analyst at Consumers Union

While 73 percent of those polled by the Consumer Reports National Research Center currently regard the overall food supply as safe, nearly half said their confidence in the safety of the nation’s food supply has decreased, the public interest research group said.

In addition, 83 percent of respondents are concerned with harmful bacteria or chemicals in food and 81 percent are concerned with the safety of imported food.

The great area of concern the pollsters found was the frequency that the government inspects food production facilities.

While USDA inspects meat plants daily, FDA inspects domestic food production facilities once every 5 to 10 years, and foreign facilities even less frequently, Rangan said.

The American public, however, expects the FDA to conduct hands-on reviews of food-processing plants far more often. In fact, two-thirds of respondents said the FDA should inspect domestic and foreign food-processing facilities at least once a month.

Mandatory country-of-origin labeling for meats, fish, produce and peanuts was finally implemented on Sept. 30, but 80 percent say there are large loopholes that consumers want closed.

For example, the group said that meat and poultry sold in butcher shops and fish sold in fish markets — 11 percent of all meat and fish — are currently exempt from country-of-origin labeling.

For more on what consumers cared about, here is a link to the poll results.


August 15, 2008

I knew Julia Child was a spy

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Good food,Random observations — Andrew Schneider @ 10:00

I wouldn’t want to try to kid anyone and imply that I was a close friend of Julia Child, but I knew she was a spy.

So I wasn’t really surprised at the field day the international media had yesterday when the National Archives unclassified files identifying Child, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg and nearly 24,000 other people as spies fighting the Nazi menace in President Franklin Roosevelt’s newly created Office of Strategic Services.

My first meeting with the chef who changed how millions cooked was in the mid-1970s, when I was working out of the Newsweek office in Boston. I visited her in her century-old Victorian house in Cambridge, Mass. Sitting in the carefully structured havoc of her wonderful kitchen – robin’s-egg blue cabinets, her big Garland stove, copper pots and bowls everywhere – she made me a grilled cheese-and-tomato sandwich and told me it was her favorite dish “that didn’t contain butter or cream.”

While waiting, I took a copy of the bible – “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” – off her bookshelf. I knew that she, and two French women – Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle – had toiled 10 years to complete the 1961 classic, which starts off, “This is a book for the servantless American cook�”

She was kind enough to ask if I’d “used” the book.

Julia Child, in a 1967 photo taken on the set of her popular television classic “The French Chef.”

Showing a complete lack of good graces and common decency, I told her that some of the recipes were too complicated and wondered how many new cooks rushed off in tears stymied by the two pages of detailed instructions for making Coq Au Vin.

“Get over it,” she told me in her wonderful warbling voice. adding that recipes are not a road map, but a guide through a world of flavors, textures, tastes and fun. Those words – and her bluntness – made me a better cook.

That was the only meal she cooked for me, but we shared the same table several other times.

The next time we met was in March 1995 at Antonio Allegra’s annual, week-long Symposium for Professional Food Writers at the historic Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.V.

One evening, when about 30 of the nation’s top cookbook authors and food writers – plus me — were sitting around a towering fireplace, drinking port or something stronger, we chatted about of the nation’s worst-kept secret: the doomsday bunker.

Codenamed Greek Island, it was 64 feet below where we were sitting and its 5-foot-thick walls would protect 1,000 people — all 535 members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and their top aides, from the A-bomb that the Cold War promised to deliver some day.

I told Child that both my parents had worked at the Greenbrier decades earlier and while they occasionally hinted, neither shared the secret of the bunker.

She smiled and called them “good people,” and said that’s what “we in the intelligence business count on.”

I said that I thought she had worked in the OSS typing pool in Ceylon or Paris. She smiled, sipped some clear liquid that wasn’t white wine, and said that was what everyone was supposed to believe.

What was I to think? Here was this icon of all things culinary, the woman who taught America that there was more to special meals than green bean casseroles topped with cream of mushroom soup and canned fried onions. A spy?

She told me that she wanted to do her part in the war but, at 6-foot-2, she said she was too tall to get into the military, was bored with working at the War Department, so she applied to the OSS. Soon she found herself working in Washington as a researcher in the Intelligence Division for top spy Gen. Bill Donovan. Child claimed she did little more than gather long lists of names.

But then she winked.

The 130-page report on Child that was released yesterday by the Archives said that while working for the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, she handled several clandestine operations in China and elsewhere where she was “registering, cataloguing and channeling a great volume of highly classified communications.”

She met her husband, Paul Child, who was working for the OSS in the 1940s.

In 1963, long before the Food Network was ever thought of, Child’s unpretentious, no-nonsense approach to cooking was bringing tens of thousands of new viewers to public television, first in Boston, then across the country. She started her TV career at age 50. She won an Emmy and a Peabody and millions of home cooks willing to take a risk. Her 39-part-series “Baking with Julia,” is still being shown on public television in Seattle.

She was a favorite on both the morning and the late night shows.

On the Letterman Show in 1989, Child was going through the steps of a French favorite and, mallet in hand, told Letterman that first one needed to pound the duck. In a retort that became an instant TV classic, the host responded that that was how he spent his homecoming night.

God, did that woman love to eat.

At a conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, I think in San Antonio, six of us went to Morton’s for dinner. Child and I were sharing about two pounds of asparagus. The server offered a silver serving boat filled with hollandaise sauce. “All of it,” she said with the roguish smile of hers, pointing to the veggies. I got three stalks. She got the rest, which slowed her not a bit in handling two pounds of very rare tenderloin. Of course, dessert followed.

Butter and cream are among the best reasons to live a long life. They are the essential food group, I recall her explaining while dipping her bread in the remaining sauce.

At another foodie event in California, I told her about a cartoon I had showing three spy-looking characters standing in front of a wall of filing cabinets labeled with several of the CIA’s more noteworthy blunders. It was signed by President George H. Bush, who was also CIA director. “Who Knows,” he wrote.

I gave her a copy after the steakhouse dinner and she roared.

“The poor CIA,” I remember her saying. “We had it so much better. There weren’t congressional committees looking over our shoulder and politics never entered the picture. We just did what we must to protect our country.”

So I asked flat out, “Were you a spy?”

“What’s a spy?,” she answered. We just collected a bit of information here and there, she said with that electric smile of hers. Flamboyance and grace in a tall package.

On Aug. 13, 2004, three days before her 92nd birthday, Child died in her sleep of kidney failure. Not the cardio-vascular collapse that health experts and proponents of fat-free diets had predicted almost every time she shoveled yet another pound of butter into a pan.

In a farewell editorial, the Boston Globe said: “Child’s goal never seemed to be perfection, only pleasure. She stood fearlessly before calories and rich food armed with her wise strategy of moderation: eating a little bit of everything to avoid missing anything.”

Now the world knows that cooking wasn’t her only fearless act.

Bon appetit, Julia.

May 30, 2008

Good food? Grow it or buy it locally

Filed under: Food labeling,Food Safety,Good food,Sustainable food — Andrew Schneider @ 17:01

I got an e-mail this morning from Di Rayburn in Berkshire, England, where she says that there is now a big push toward healthy eating, buying locally grown food and starting your own garden, all, she says, to cut down its carbon footprint.

This been an increase in applying for “allotments,” which are small plots of ground rented cheaply from local town councils where townsfolk can grow their own veggies like the Brits and Yanks both did with their victory gardens during “the big war.”

These small garden plots lost popularity after the war, Di says, “but now, with a (UK) health service that believes in preventative measures before serious health problems can kick in, there is a push for healthy eating, and allotments are experiencing a comeback.

Locally grown?

“Freezing, pickling or bottling the excess, means you save a lot of money through the year and when you pick your own and bring it home to cook, you know it’s chock full of vitamins and minerals due to its freshness” said the foodie from across the Atlantic.

“The ‘old’ ways are worth taking a look at occasionally,” said Mrs. Rayburn.

If you have no time, space or interest in growing your own, there are at least 4,000 farmers’ markets now operating across the country. says two of the best farmers markets in the country are in the Pacific Northwest. Here’s their descriptions:

Portland Farmers Market, Oregon – Troll the stalls for Dungeness crab, farmed abalone, wild mushrooms, and organic cranberries, and the acclaimed breads and pastry from Pearl Bakery, made with sustainably grown ingredients, including Pacific Northwest wheat and dairy. Afterward, drop the kids off for a cooking class, while you stop by the “Taste the Place” booth to learn about “underappreciated produce” and what to do with it.

Seattle “U-District” Market – Seattle’s largest neighborhood market is “farmers only,” meaning it’s limited to food products. It hosts more than 50 regional growers who gather to sell everything from free-range eggs and hard cider, to hazelnuts, wild huckleberries and mushrooms, to grass-fed goat meat.

There is wide agreement that if you shop at a market where the food is actually grown by local farmers and not just unpacked by them, the quality is premium, but so are the prices.

Well, maybe not any more.

According to the Market Free News, earlier this year economic students at Seattle University tallied prices over a two-week period at two groceries � Whole Foods and QVC � and at the farmers market in Seattle’s University District. To the surprise of many, the prices for the locally produced produces from the farmers cost less than at the two chain stories. For example, a pound of fruits and veggies at the farmers market was $2.37, at Whole Foods $2.59 and at QVC, $2.97.

But just keep your eyes open for the rare shifty farmer from Wenatchee unpacking boxes that say “Grown in Guatemala.”

May 27, 2008

Can we afford to eat organic food?

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Good food,Sustainable food — Andrew Schneider @ 15:45

Usually, when enough readers call with similar questions I try to grovel around and see if I can find an appropriate answer. Over the past few weeks several of you have called or e-mailed me wanting to know how you can continue to put healthy food on the table with grocery prices soaring.

The answer to that question popped up today in an article posted by Dr. Mary Pickett, an associate professor of medicine at Oregon Health & Science University where she is a primary care doctor for adults.

The internal medicine specialist reported that the federal government says April’s food prices were 14 percent higher for bread, 13.5 percent higher for milk, and 5 percent higher for food overall compared with last year’s prices, and last month’s food cost increase was the largest in the past 18 years.

The good doctor also tries to address the question of whether it’s important to buy organic food, which she says “can steeply increase the price you pay for fruits, vegetables, milk and grains.”

Her answer: It is hard to say for sure whether organics are worth the extra cost.
The most important difference between organic and non-organic foods is the presence of pesticides. Large exposures to pesticides are known to be dangerous, since pesticides can be toxic to nerves. But small exposures (like the small exposure you can get from non-organic foods) don’t cause obvious harms, she says.

She talks about Dr. Alex Lu’s study which I reported on Jan. 30, that showed that pre-school children who eat an organic foods diet have less organophosphate pesticide measured in their urine, compared with other children.

But she rightly concludes that “there is no good study that can prove–one way or the other–whether lifelong trace exposure to pesticides can cause human harm.”

She does caution that shoppers should not buy organic foods if they need to cut down on the quantity of fruits and vegetables that you buy in order to afford them. Washing, peeling, freezing and cooking fruits and vegetables eliminate a portion of the pesticides that contaminate them, so these are additional good strategies.

A valuable tip from Pickett is that if you choose to spend extra on organic foods, buy the organic versions of the fruits and vegetables in the “dirty dozen”–these are the foods that have the most pesticide residue: peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, grapes (imported), spinach, lettuce and potatoes.

Check out this link to her work for suggestions on what to do with dairy products, meat, juices and other shopping bag items.

May 15, 2008

Chicagoans can again eat goose liver

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Good food — Andrew Schneider @ 09:42

Just a short note to give those of you who really love or hate goose liver something to get excited over.

The comedic Chicago City Council yesterday decided it was wrong two-years ago when it told the chefs of the culinary Mecca of the Midwest that they could no longer serve foie gras.

According to Chicago Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman, Mayor Richard M. Daley said the ban made Chicago an international laughingstock. The mayor argued that the animal cruelty issue has been debated ad nauseam, that “everybody knew” about the repeal and it was high-time to reverse a foie gras ban that damaged the city’s reputation in international dining circles.

Daley noted that restaurants found ways to get around the ban, Spielman reported.

“You can buy it in retail. You can bring it with you. They can’t sell it to you, [but] they can put it on your salad and increase [the cost of] your salad by $20. They can put it on a piece of toast and charge you $10. Does that make sense? This is what government should be doing�? ” the mayor asked.

Foie gras, French for “fatty liver,” is produced by force-feeding geese and ducks — by jamming a steel pipe down a bird’s esophagus three times a day for a month — to create livers 10 times their normal size.

For those of you who want a refresher on the wacky world of Chicago politics, check out Fran’s story.

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