Skip to content

traveling food

August 8, 2007

both of these articles are about how our food travels. i wanted to share this because i don’t think most people think about where their food actually comes from. setting aside animal transport for a minute, i found both of these a helpful reminder for myself to shop locally.

from the first article, i found it very interesting that she seems to think that every cow is inspected before and after slaughter. i forget what the figures are, but last time i checked, very few animals are inspected at all. inspections only go up when some kind of disease is found. anyway, i’m quite thankful i don’t eat shrimp, or any seafood for that matter.

in regard to animals, did you know they can be shipped for up to 20 hours without being given any food or water? think about that. think about that trip; they all know where they’re headed, some of them are having coronary problems at the thought, and they are without food and water the entire time. it saddens me.

anyway, read on, and feel free to pass along.

By Renae Merle Washington Post
August 4, 2007

article source. 

Customers dining on surf and turf at a local restaurant may find themselves feasting on steak and a handful of breaded shrimp that took wildly disparate paths through a disjointed American food-safety system. The steak came from a cow that was examined by a government inspector before and after it was slaughtered. The shrimp most likely were not inspected. The steak probably came from an American producer. The shrimp likely came from overseas, perhaps from one of several Asian countries that have been criticized for sloppy practices in raising seafood.

The disparity is a function of America’s 100-year-old food-safety system, under which the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration divvy up the food pyramid. The USDA regulates meat, a practice that dates to 1906, after the Upton Sinclair novel “The Jungle” had alerted Americans to unsanitary conditions in the nation’s slaughterhouses. The FDA oversees the safety of most other foods, including seafood, fruits and vegetables. Neither agency’s inspection system is perfect, but the one that covers beef is more likely to catch problems than the one covering seafood, according to consumer groups and people who have worked in food safety.

The split system has resulted in a patchwork process for ensuring that meat, seafood and produce consumed in the United States is safe. In a report this year, the Government Accountability Office called federal oversight of the food safety system “fragmented” and put it on a list of “high-risk” programs.

Reports of unsafe food from China have spurred a reexamination of the system, which some say has not caught up with recent increases in food imports, which have doubled in value in the past decade. “Our overall food-safety system needs comprehensive reform. People are losing confidence,” said Rep. Rosa DaLauro (Dem.-Connecticut), a frequent critic of the FDA’s oversight of seafood and produce.

But FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach, in a letter to employees last month after the agency was criticized during a congressional hearing, said, “Although food safety problems still occur in this country, it does not automatically follow that the FDA is asleep at the switch.”

Changing the system would require upending huge bureaucracies and long-standing traditions, as well as tackling industry concerns. Congress is considering a piece of legislation that would establish a single food-safety agency and another that would, for the first time, allow the FDA to charge importers a fee.

An import safety panel appointed by President Bush is expected to issue recommendations in September, and the subject has come up in high-level talks between the United States and China. “There is something in between FDA and USDA that is really the right answer,” said Mike Taylor, a former administrator for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and a research professor of public health at George Washington University. “We have to make it a system that enforces private industry’s responsibility to manage supply chain.”

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Dem.-Illinois) has advocated a single food agency as a way to create efficiency. “It could be that USDA is not the best model. Let science dictate that decision, not tradition or politics,” Durbin said.

The USDA system relies on an army of 7,600 inspectors who do a what the agency calls a “carcass-by-carcass” inspection at slaughterhouses throughout the country. The agency also limits imports of meat — beef, chicken, lamb and pork — to 37 countries that have comparable food safety systems and are certified by the agency. Of the imported meat, about ten percent is subject to further testing when it reaches U.S. shores, according to the USDA.

But some critics see inefficiency in the USDA system. At poultry plants, USDA inspectors watch chickens pass by on the slaughter line every two or three seconds, hardly enough time to give them serious examination, Taylor said. “You can visually examine chickens all day and not see the salmonella,” he said. The carcass-by-carcass inspection system is mandated by law and is an important part of the food safety system, said USDA spokesman Stephen Cohen. The agency also began taking samples for testing to augment the visual inspections in the 1990s, he said. “The agency has not stayed stagnant,” Cohen said. “We’re much more prevention-oriented.”

Some question whether the USDA can serve both as overseer of the meat industry and as its cheerleader. Last year, the USDA’s inspector general found that the department had overruled a recommendation by field scientists to test an animal that was suspected of having mad cow disease, a degenerative nerve disorder, because it feared that a positive finding would undermine confidence in the agency’s testing procedures. At the time, the USDA had said it had taken steps to better enforce its rules. “The job of [the USDA] is to make the foods we regulate the safest they can be. A safe product markets itself,” Cohen said.

But the USDA’s system is more extensive than that of the FDA. The FDA has about 700 inspectors and lab technicians, less than one-tenth the workforce of USDA. Its food safety budget, about $450 million, is dwarfed by the USDA’s $850 million in spending, according to Consumers Union. And it does not approve countries before they are allowed to export products to the United States. It inspects about one percent of the imports that fall under its purview and doesn’t limit which of 300 ports and land crossings importers can use.

Part of the problem is that the FDA’s responsibilities have grown faster than the agency has, said Bill Hubbard, who retired from the FDA last year after 26 years. While the number of FDA inspectors has fallen, the value of imported food under its control has risen sharply. About 80% of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported, according to a report by Public Citizen, a consumers’ rights group. When the FDA was established, it oversaw the import of such staples as flour and molasses, in which problems were usually easy to spot, Hubbard said. “The FDA foods were not considered dangerous,” he said.

There has been a failed attempt to strengthen the system. In 1999, the FDA faced an explosion in imports of such inexpensive ingredients as wheat gluten and ascorbic acid that kept food prices down but also raised safety concerns within the agency, Hubbard said. The agency proposed requiring firms or countries with repeated safety problems to be suspended from exporting to the United States until they came up with a safety plan, he said. The proposal, known as “USDA light” in FDA circles, never gained traction. “At the time, the industry felt it could end up having a negative impact on them,” Hubbard said. “I thought we would at least get a hearing on it, but it didn’t go so far.”

FDA officials acknowledge some weaknesses and have been working on a food safety plan for months. “We would never have enough inspectors to test every product that came into the United States every day,” said David Acheson, assistant commissioner for food protection at the FDA. “Simply doubling the number of inspectors is not the answer.”

And von Eschenbach, the FDA commissioner, rejects one of the most popular alternatives on Capitol Hill: creating a single food agency. The agency learned from last year’s E. coli outbreak linked to tainted spinach and this year’s problems with tainted pet food, he said. “There is an extraordinary uniqueness about FDA” because of its science-based approach to such issues, von Eschenbach said recently. “We need to maintain that uniqueness.”

Industry officials say they favor changes that would bolster consumer confidence, but they are resistant to drastic change. Creating a single agency could be a bureaucratic nightmare that would take time away from inspections, they say. John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute, said that the FDA needs more inspectors but that there should be a balance so the system is not unnecessarily bogged down. “We think that the U.S. has a very good food-safety system and would argue with premise that the system is broken,” he said.

Instead, industry insiders say, the agencies should focus on establishing a “trace-back” system that would make it easier to identify the sources of problematic foods and streamline the recall process. “Our members tend to find out about these from the news media,” said Tim Hammonds, president of the Food Marketing Institute. “If they were to give retailers a heads-up, we could be much faster at getting things removed from the shelves.”

By James E. McWilliams New York Times
August 6, 2007

article source.

AUSTIN, Texas — The term “food miles” — how far food has traveled before you buy it — has entered the enlightened lexicon. Environmental groups, especially in Europe, are pushing for labels that show how far food has traveled to get to the market, and books like Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life” contemplate the damage wrought by trucking, shipping and flying food from distant parts of the globe.

There are many good reasons for eating local — freshness, purity, taste, community cohesion and preserving open space — but none of these benefits compares to the much-touted claim that eating local reduces fossil fuel consumption. In this respect eating local joins recycling, biking to work and driving a hybrid as a realistic way that we can, as individuals, shrink our carbon footprint and be good stewards of the environment.

On its face, the connection between lowering food miles and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions is a no-brainer. In Iowa, the typical carrot has traveled 1,600 miles from California, a potato 1,200 miles from Idaho and a chuck roast 600 miles from Colorado. Seventy-five percent of the apples sold in New York City come from the West Coast or overseas, the writer Bill McKibben says, even though the state produces far more apples than city residents consume. These examples just scratch the surface of the problem. In light of this market redundancy, the only reasonable reaction, it seems, is to count food miles the way a dieter counts calories.

But is reducing food miles necessarily good for the environment? Researchers at Lincoln University in New Zealand, no doubt responding to Europe’s push for “food miles labeling,” recently published a study challenging the premise that more food miles automatically mean greater fossil fuel consumption. Other scientific studies have undertaken similar investigations. According to this peer-reviewed research, compelling evidence suggests that there is more — or less — to food miles than meets the eye.

It all depends on how you wield the carbon calculator. Instead of measuring a product’s carbon footprint through food miles alone, the Lincoln University scientists expanded their equations to include other energy-consuming aspects of production — what economists call “factor inputs and externalities” — like water use, harvesting techniques, fertilizer outlays, renewable energy applications, means of transportation (and the kind of fuel used), the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed during photosynthesis, disposal of packaging, storage procedures and dozens of other cultivation inputs.

Incorporating these measurements into their assessments, scientists reached surprising conclusions. Most notably, they found that lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.

These life-cycle measurements are causing environmentalists worldwide to rethink the logic of food miles. New Zealand’s most prominent environmental research organization, Landcare Research-Manaaki Whenua, explains that localism “is not always the most environmentally sound solution if more emissions are generated at other stages of the product life cycle than during transport.” The British government’s 2006 Food Industry Sustainability Strategy similarly seeks to consider the environmental costs “across the life cycle of the produce,” not just in transportation.

“Eat local” advocates — a passionate cohort of which I am one — are bound to interpret these findings as a threat. We shouldn’t. Not only do life cycle analyses offer genuine opportunities for environmentally efficient food production, but they also address several problems inherent in the eat-local philosophy.

Consider the most conspicuous ones: it is impossible for most of the world to feed itself a diverse and healthy diet through exclusively local food production — food will always have to travel; asking people to move to more fertile regions is sensible but alienating and unrealistic; consumers living in developed nations will, for better or worse, always demand choices beyond what the season has to offer.

Given these problems, wouldn’t it make more sense to stop obsessing over food miles and work to strengthen comparative geographical advantages? And what if we did this while streamlining transportation services according to fuel-efficient standards? Shouldn’t we create development incentives for regional nodes of food production that can provide sustainable produce for the less sustainable parts of the nation and the world as a whole? Might it be more logical to conceptualize a hub-and-spoke system of food production and distribution, with the hubs in a food system’s naturally fertile hot spots and the spokes, which travel through the arid zones, connecting them while using hybrid engines and alternative sources of energy?

As concerned consumers and environmentalists, we must be prepared to seriously entertain these questions. We must also be prepared to accept that buying local is not necessarily beneficial for the environment. As much as this claim violates one of our most sacred assumptions, life cycle assessments offer far more valuable measurements to gauge the environmental impact of eating. While there will always be good reasons to encourage the growth of sustainable local food systems, we must also allow them to develop in tandem with what could be their equally sustainable global counterparts. We must accept the fact, in short, that distance is not the enemy of awareness.

JAMES E. MCWILLIAMS is the author of “A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America” and a contributing writer for The Texas Observer.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: