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.


July 25, 2008

Imported produce getting a free ride?

Filed under: FDA,Food labeling,Food Safety,Pesticides,Risks to children,Sustainable food — Andrew Schneider @ 16:00

On the 19th, we ran in the PI a story in the P-I on a hazmat coalition involving King Country and three dozen other political entities that removed from its Web site and handout materials a wallet-sized shopping guide to
which fruits and vegetables contained the most and least pesticides.

The story explained that agri-business groups had urged the county to get rid of the guide. Washington Friends of Farms and Forests said failure to do so would end the very existence of local farmers.

And, as happens every time I write about pesticide residue in our food, my mailbox became clogged with opinions and suggestions from four continents. Really, four.

Some requests are anatomically impossible to comply with. Others are easy to address. For example, here is the link to the guide that the county says it’s rewriting. The data on which the card was based came from USDA analysis of more than 50,000 samples of food.

One thing that I could have stressed when talking about the card was that in most cases, even when residue from five or six different pesticides was found, the total amount of chemical present was usually infinitesimal.

Some of the mail came from people who said they were family farmers “already hanging on by their fingernails.”

I called a few of them to chat and their stories were similar: “Cards like this force people to buy organic.” Or, “we can’t compete with imported food because their labor costs are a fraction of ours and they can, and do, use all the pesticides they need.” Both true.

I also spoke to consumers who said they want to “buy local” because they trust American farmers, but they find that much of the non-organic food on the shelves come from many other countries. A thought repeated by several.

About six of the “farmers” with whom I chatted said they belonged to Ag groups like the “Friends of Farmers” mentioned above. When I asked them why their associations didn’t buy billboards or raise hell about imported food and the lack of government inspection, or why, at least they didn’t demand action from their congressional reps, to whom their groups or umbrella political action campaigns always donate, they replied “good question.”

Interestingly, two of the famers — one from Yakama and the other from Montana — both reminded me that people from the chemical companies that make pesticides sit on the boards of their associations and contribute a good bit of money to keep the groups going.

They also raised the obvious fact that the U.S. chemical companies sell pesticides that are banned in this country all over they world. Thus, looking too hard at what’s comiing back on imported produce would probably not get their support.

Nevertheless, I think I’ll look a bit closer at who’s watching the imports and I’m open to suggestions on where to look.

July 2, 2008

Watermelon like Viagra? Sure.

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Random observations,Sustainable food — Andrew Schneider @ 16:41

The humble but ever popular watermelon may give new meaning to the phrase sustainable food, especially its green rind.

Bhimu Patil, director of Texas A&M’s Fruit and Vegetable Improvement Center in College Station, has reported that watermelon has ingredients that deliver Viagra-like effects to the body’s blood vessels and may even increase libido.

This is not a joke. Check out the Aggie’s announcement.

Bhimu Patil, director of Texas A&M’s Fruit and Vegetable Improvement Center, says watermelon may have Viagra-like effects. (Photo: Texas A&M University)

“The more we study watermelons, the more we realize just how amazing a fruit it is in providing natural enhancers to the human body,” said the scientist, who added, “We’ve always known that watermelon is good for you, but the list of its very important healthful benefits grows longer with each study.”

Beneficial ingredients in watermelon and other fruits and vegetables include lycopene, beta carotene and the rising star among its phyto-nutrients – citrulline – whose beneficial functions are now being unraveled.

“Among the ingredients is arginine which boosts nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessels, the same basic effect that Viagra has, to treat erectile dysfunction and maybe even prevent,” reported Patil.

He admits that watermelon may not be as organ specific as Viagra, but said “it’s a great way to relax blood vessels without any drug side-effects.”

The scientist offers this advice for those Fourth of July watermelons: “They store much better uncut if you leave them at room temperature. Lycopene levels can be maintained even as it sits on your kitchen floor. But once you cut it, refrigerate. And enjoy.”

June 16, 2008

Kwifruit in the gas tank?

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Random observations,Sustainable food — Andrew Schneider @ 22:39

The flooding in the Midwestern U.S. is destroying millions of acres of corn and soybeans — 3 million in Iowa alone — and this is likely to lead to severe shortages in feed for livestock and biofuel. But a bit more than 8,000 miles into the Pacific, New Zealanders are offering up one of their favorite fruits to fill the biofuel gap.

Graham Wiggins, president of New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers, said that research is being done on transforming about 15 million trays of waste Kiwifruit into fuel and other products was an exciting prospect.

According to the New Zealand Herald, Kiwifruit is already recognized as a mild laxative, blood thinner, meat tenderizer and dessert garnish. Wiggins says it could be destined for even greater things.

Currently, much of New Zealand’s kiwifruit that fails to make the export or local market grade becomes food for livestock.

“The world is moving quite quickly towards biofuels and what might be seen now as a small use [of reject fruit] could in the future become a money earner for the industry,” Wiggins told the newspaper.

Here’s a link to the full story.

Midwest flooding will hike food prices

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Food Safety,Sustainable food — Andrew Schneider @ 14:20

The images on TV are dramatic and painful to watch, with houses piling up behind bridges as flood waters continue to rampage through much of the Midwest. Ag experts anticipate massive distruction to the nation’s corn supply, as well as concerns about the area’s huge livestock operations.

The relentless rains, cold temperatures and record flood water mixed with what some experts called the “nation’s ill-conceived corn ethanol mandate” has formed what the Environmental Working Group has called “a perfect storm (that) is helping to push food and feed prices to record highs, while doing nothing to put a dent in soaring prices at the pump.”

Congress must revisit the entire issue of biofuels and its imact on the food supply. the report said.

EWG, a public-interest research organization released a report supporting these conclusions late today after extensive interviews with top agriculture economists and climatologists.

In Iowa, 1.13 million acres of corn, nearly 10 percent of the state’s total, already have been lost, and 4 million more are currently under water. Across the Midwest, millions more acres are likely to suffer significant yield loss because fields have been too wet to plant or are too wet to apply fertilizer or control weeds, according to the report.

When the Bush administration and Congress triggered the ethanol boom in 2005 with the Renewable Fuels Standard mandate and then raised the mandate five-fold in 2007, they ignored the impact this policy could have on food prices, relying entirely on good weather to make this roll-of-the dice decision a success.

“Our ethanol policy requires perfect weather, and not surprisingly, we aren’t getting it,” said EWG Senior Agriculture Analyst Michelle Perez.

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 29, 2008

How much of your food is GMO?

Back a couple of months, a couple of you asked how you could determine whether or not your food contained genetically modified organisms. It took a while, but I found a bit of information that might help you better understand this bomb-filled arena, or just add to your confusion.

Here’s one point that’s indisputable. It is difficult for consumers to know whether the food they’re buying was genetically modified, especially in this country. Most of the industrialized countries demand that GMO products be labeled as such. But not the U.S.

The Pew Research Foundation reported that more than 90 percent of American shoppers want food labeled as to its contents, including GMO. Unless I missed it, there was nothing in the farm bill that finally passed last week that will give us a clue to the presence of GM ingredients.

GMO By Rediscover Biology

Monsanto, which has a chokehold on the world’s use of genetically modified seeds, is now using its extensive network of lawyers and lobbyists to pressure state agriculture agencies not to allow milk producers to label dairy products as not coming from cows fed with GM food or bovine growth hormone.

To learn more about Monsanto, check out this link to Don Barlett and Jim Steele’s very well done and balanced investigative report in this month’s Vanity Fair.

As with almost everything controversial, all the opinions on GMO have to be weighed by considering the source of the information. The Institute for Responsible Technology makes no pretense about its concern over the danger of using genetically modified substances in our food.

The institute, founded in 2003 by Jeffery Smith, the author of “Seeds of Deception,” says many consumers in the U.S. mistakenly believe that the FDA approves GM foods through rigorous, in-depth, long-term studies. In reality, the agency has absolutely no safety testing requirements.

Smith says it’s easy to understand the FDA’s industry-friendly policy on regulation of GMOs when you see the revolving door between agency regulators and the companies they regulate.

The FDA has claimed it was not aware of any information showing that GM crops were different “in any meaningful or uniform way” from non-GMO crops and therefore didn’t require testing. But Smith says that 44,000 internal FDA documents made public by a lawsuit show that this was not true.

But getting back to the original question of how to identify GMO-tainted food, the institute has released a four-page guide on what to watch out for, including a lengthy list of food items containing GM ingredients.

The guide and other GMO information can be found at the institute’s Web site at this link.

As expected, Monsanto says its processes are safe and beneficial and it “helps farmers grow food more efficiently and in a more sustainable manner. We do this through science and the development of agricultural technology. Our products have changed the way food is grown, to the benefit of both farmers and consumers,” its Web site states.

For the rest of the story, or at least Monsanto’s side of the GMO issue, this link will take you to a long list of stories that the worldwide chemical company has presented on its position.

Good luck sorting through all of this.

Wouldn’t shopping be an easier and possibly safer chore if all food were properly labeled?

May 28, 2008

State auditors watch to keep food safe

Filed under: Food Safety,Sustainable food — Andrew Schneider @ 17:18

Did you know Washington state farmers and food processors produce more than different 300 crops and packaged or processed foods? They range from the obvious like apples, cherries and potatoes to the lesser known lentils and organic tofu. All are locally grown, says the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

The state Ag inspectors are doing their best to see that the crops are free of E. coli, Listeria, salmonella and other food-borne illnesses that sickened so many. The massive media coverage on food recalls often damage or destroy the businesses of many mom and pop farmers, even some whose crops were not contaminated but were swept up in the public angst.

Farmers who raise fresh fruit and vegetable and those who distribute the products are seeking third-party verification that safe farm practices are being used to reduce the risk of microbial contamination of fresh produce.

The state inspectors are following audit guidelines that USDA has developed to ensure both Good Agricultural Practices, which cover the growing process of fresh fruits and vegetables in the field, and Good Handling Practices, which are targeted at the procedures used at produce warehouses and packing plants.

While the audits are voluntary, an increasing number of national wholesalers and retailers are requiring the duel certification from the growers and processors from whom they acquire their foods, as does feds for the nation’s school lunch program.

“We want the buyers of Washington fruits and vegetables to know that they are getting the highest quality produce on the market,” says Jim Quigley of the state Ag department’s Fruit and Vegetable Inspection Program.

He says by reducing the risk of microbial contamination, these audits can help guard against a major product recall that can impact a business for years.

The state conducted 97 GAP audits in 2007, up from 16 audits the year before. And this year, demand is expected to exceed last year’s requests.

The state auditors examine a wide range of procedures along the food supply chain that can prevent the spread of bacterial illnesses, including:

* Field irrigation water tested for the presence of microbial

* Measures to prevent livestock waste from contaminating crops and

* Ability to trace back produce to a particular field and date of

* Covered, clean trucks to haul all produce;

* Potable water used for food processing and hand washing;

* Proper storage and refrigeration of harvested produce;

* Documented pest control programs in warehouses; and

* Proper sanitation training for farm workers and packing house

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 13, 2008

GAO urges caution on ocean fish farms

Filed under: Public health legislation,Salmon,Seafood,Sustainable food — Andrew Schneider @ 15:51

Let’s talk about fish. Or more specifically, aquaculture, which is the farming of fish and shellfish.

EPA Aquatic Biologist Dave Terpening at one of Idaho’s many fish farms. PI Photo

There are fish farms all across the country. Small mom and pop operations raising catfish in backyard ponds and streams can be found in at least 19 states. Idaho is home to about 60 seafood operations including an alligator breeder and the nation’s largest rainbow and golden trout farms. According to federal investigators, the salmon aquaculture industry in the United States is concentrated in Maine and Washington, with at least eight Atlantic salmon farms floating in Puget Sound alone. Just a bit north, there are another 120 salmon ranches along the inlets, bays and straits of British Columbia.

Of course an alligator is seafood. Ask them in Idaho. PI Photo

As wild salmon grow more scarce due to environmental disruption and diminished water flow on the fish’s traditional spawning rivers, the growth of aquaculture has increased. Enormously in some areas. But some breeders and the White House say the fish pens in coastal waters are not enough to produce the salmon and other finfish needed to supply the market.

The big business “farmers” want permission to build sprawling complexes of floating pens, nets and cages in deep water miles offshore. This is the United States’ Exclusive Economic Zone, which covers three to 200 nautical miles from shore. Thus, opening shop for anything in this hunk of ocean becomes a matter of federal jurisdiction, not state.

As it happens, there are few if any laws on the books to regulate this new concept in fish farming.

In a surprising example of the government actually getting ahead of a problem, the White House last year pushed for the creation of the National Offshore Aquaculture Act, which would give the Commerce Department the authority to regulate offshore aquaculture.

Rep. Nick Rahall, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, introduced the bill in April 2007 “as a favor to the administration. ” Two months earlier he had asked the Government Accountability Office to determine how such an unusual, deepwater, economic activity should be handled to protect the oceans and the food supply.

The GAO issued its 54-page report this week.

Rahall said the administration’s proposed bill doesn’t go far enough to ensure adequate protection for the marine environment.

“This new report makes abundantly clear what I have long believed – any offshore aquaculture development must be done in a manner that does not jeopardize the health of our oceans or the viability of the fishing industry,” said the West Virginia Democrat.

The GAO report identifies several important safeguards that need to be carefully considered before permits are issued to anyone. These include:
� The appointment of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration as the lead federal agency to regulate and permit any offshore aquaculture facilities.

� The clear delineation of the roles and responsibilities of other federal agencies and states in the administration of these businesses.

� The establishment of a permitting and site selection process that clearly identifies the terms and conditions for offshore aquaculture operations.

� The implementation of a regulatory process to review, monitor, and mitigate the potential environmental impacts of offshore aquaculture facilities.

The congressional investigators also called for additional research on developing fish feeds that do not rely heavily on harvesting wild fish; exploring how escaped offshore aquaculture-raised fish might impact wild fish populations; and developing strategies to breed and raise fish while effectively managing possible disease.

We’ll get into a look at the oyster, mussels, shrimp and other shellfish growers in another posting.

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