Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mark Bittman: "Tough Week for Meatless Monday"

There was an interesting column by Mark Bittman in The New York Times yesterday on our dietary relationship with animal protein.

The article tied in "The China Study," meatless Mondays, umami and our societal need for meat; it's definitely worth the three minutes it takes to read.

Click here to read "Tough Week for Meatless Monday."

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Debunking the Organic-Costs-More Myth (English Muffins)

The belief that organic foods are always more expensive than their conventional cousins is misplaced.

Yes, organic milk can cost several dollars more than conventional (it's worth every penny, though), but many other everyday items can be similarly priced, or even cheaper depending on the brand. Take, for example, English muffins.

The most popular national brand, Thomas', retails for $3.79 for a six pack of original (white flour) or original made with whole grain; multi-grain are $4.19. Remember, with Thomas' we also get denatured flour from grains sprayed with pesticides, a host of preservatives, genetically modified soybean oil and caramel color, depending on the variety.

In the same price range is Rudi's Organic Bakery, the leading national organic bread company, which sells whole wheat English muffins for $4.19.

While the flavor and texture of Rudi's muffins are superb, I've heard the nooks and crannies—a major selling point of Thomas'—are slightly lacking.

Personally, I think spending less than seven cents more per muffin is a no-brainer in order to avoid pesticides, preservatives and other synthetic ingredients.

However, the absolute best deal—conventional or organic—are the organic English muffins from Whole Foods (original and whole wheat), priced at $2.49 for a six pack.

It takes a little time to figure out where the deals are, but once you have the knowledge it will serve you for years.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

How to Keep Brown Sugar Soft

During a cooking lesson last week we needed some brown sugar. My student had plenty—five bags—but all were about half-full with rock-hard brown sugar. We chiseled with a knife to get a half cup, but there is an easier way.

The hardening occurs when the brown sugar loses its natural moisture. To prevent this, place a small piece of bread in the container or bag of brown sugar. Hardened sugar will regain its softness in a day or two and newly-bought sugar will remain soft.

Monday, June 27, 2011

FDA's Unenviable Task of Protecting Our Food Supply

While eating locally has gained popularity in the last several years, the reality is that more of our food is coming from far away, a logistical nightmare for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is charged with keeping our food supply safe. According to a recent report from the FDA:
"Between 10% and 15% of all food consumed by United States (U.S.) households is imported from abroad. Nearly two-thirds of the fruits and vegetables--and 80% of seafood--eaten domestically come from outside the U.S. Half of all medical devices used in this country are imported, while 80 percent of the active pharmaceutical ingredients in medications sold here are manufactured elsewhere."
The numbers will most likely continue to grow:
"Just a decade ago, 6 million shipments of FDA-regulated goods passed through the nation’s 300 ports of entry. This year the number will quadruple to 24 million shipments. Each year over the last seven years, food imports have grown by an average of 10%, while imports of pharmaceutical products have increased at nearly 13% and devices have grown at over 10%. Between 2007 and 2015, it is estimated that imports of FDA-regulated products will triple, corresponding to a 15% growth rate."
To meet this increase, the FDA is changing how it does business in an effort to better protect us from food-borne illnesses and questionable products:
"In order to cope with the magnitude of the fundamental shifts on the horizon, the agency is committed to substantially and fundamentally revising its approach to global product safety and quality. Over the next decade, FDA will transform itself from a domestic agency operating in a globalized world to a truly global agency fully prepared for a regulatory environment in which product safety and quality know no borders."
Let's hope the FDA gets this right (and is afforded the money to do so). Click here to read a detailed summary of the FDA's "Pathway to Global Product Safety and Quality."

By the way, the image above shows the possible journey of canned tuna fish; click on the image for more detail.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Jack LaLanne's 10-Point Self-Improvement Plan

Jack LaLanne is the man. Yes, his message is simple, but it's also practical, helpful and true:

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Chiquita Banana Song and Banana Refrigeration

Bananas should be left to ripen at room temperature, but, according to several sources, including Dole Food Company, ripe bananas can be refrigerated. While this will dramatically slow the ripening process, be aware that the peels will turn black.

Someone of a certain age saw a banana in my refrigerator and asked what I was doing.

"Haven't you heard the Chiquita banana song?" he asked. "Never put bananas in the refrigerator!"

A little Googling turned up this gem of post-World War II marketing:

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Jack in the Box Removes Toys from Kids' Meals (!)

Six months ago Aasif Mandvi, on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," poked great fun at San Francisco for banning toys from kids' meals (sorry for the 15-second ad):

Joking aside, I wonder what Mandvi thinks now that Jack in the Box, the nation's fifth-largest fast food hamburger chain, will voluntarily stop including toys in kids' meals.

From Nation's Restaurant News:
"Jack in the Box has pulled the toys from its kids’ meals and added new options for children while rolling out new menu boards that executives said are easier to navigate and highlight higher-margin items.

"The San Diego-based Jack in the Box Inc., parent to the 2,200-unit chain, said its decision to stop offering toys with kids’ meals did not come from outside pressure. Activist groups have become more vocal across the U.S., advocating their belief that the marketing of fast-food to children is associated with rising obesity rates, and legislation in two California counties has already restricted the use of toys in certain kids’ meals."
This is not a new pattern; we've seen before how public pressure and/or progressive legislation can lead to meaningful change (despite what Jack in the Box claims). McDonald's discontinuing Happy Meals is a long shot, but Jack in the Box's move will at least energize the conversation.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bill Banning Antibiotics (PAMTA) Introduced in Senate

The movement to ban the administering of antibiotics to our healthy farm animals gained even more steam last week when the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) was reintroduced in the Senate by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

The press release from Feinstein's office touches on what we've discussed before, (most recently when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about the issue):
"The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) addresses the rampant overuse of antibiotics in agriculture that creates drug-resistant bacteria, an increasing threat to human beings.

"The widespread practice of using antibiotics to promote livestock growth and compensate for unsanitary, crowded conditions has led to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria and other pathogens, rendering many powerful drugs ineffective."
While the bill has a long way to go before it becomes law, the fact that a bipartisan group of senators is supporting it shows the progress that has been made in publicizing the dangers associated with the antibiotics. It's a good bet that farm state senators will be against this legislation.

Similar to companion legislation in the House of Representatives introduced by Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY), PAMTA, according to the Feinstein press release, aims to:

"• Phase out the non-therapeutic use of medically important antibiotics in livestock;
• Require new applications for animal antibiotics to demonstrate the use of the antibiotic will not endanger public health;
• Not restrict the use of antibiotics to treat sick livestock or to treat pets.

"PAMTA will limit the agricultural use of seven types of antibiotics that have been identified by the Food and Drug Administration as critically important in human medicine to ensure that antibiotic-resistance is not inadvertently accelerated."

Monday, June 20, 2011

Don't Throw Out Those Beet Greens; Cook Them!

I was buying vegetables over the weekend from Nevia No, my favorite farmer, when a woman purchasing beets asked Nevia to remove the beets' greens. From fifteen feet away I tracked the conversation, confident the two bunches of voluptuous greens would soon be going home with me.

"You don't want them?" Nevia asked the customer, slightly incredulously.

"No," the woman said. "What do you do with them?"

"You cook them just like any other dark leafy green," Nevia said.

"Oh, I didn't know that," the woman said. "Maybe I'll get there one day."

"ROBBBB!" Nevia shouted, not realizing I was now ten feet away and closing in quickly on my gift from the farmers' market gods.

For $3 you get the beets and their greens, which are delicious and nutritious. For $3 you can get chard, a leafy green very similar to beet greens, but without the beets. You do the math.

Cook beet greens just like you would kale, chard, collard greens and mustard greens. The tops of radishes can be used the same way. Watch the video below to see how easy cooking greens can be. (Sorry about the synthetic non-stick pan; not my production!)

By the way, the woman missed out on some of the tastiest beet greens I've ever eaten. Their flavor was as strong as the beets connected to them.

Friday, June 17, 2011

New Farmers' Market Cheese Rule Defies Logic

I called the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets yesterday about its new prohibition on the custom cutting of cheeses at the state's farmers' markets.

Unfortunately, the food safety people weren't around, but I was told someone would get back to me today.

While waiting for that call I'll have more time to figure out what our government officials were thinking. Traditionally, most cheese makers at the markets cut cheeses to order on site, which allowed customers to buy as big (or small) of a piece as desired. The vendors displayed their cheeses under glass or plastic protection, a great tool to attract passers-by not familiar with the product.

Now, no more cutting, ostensibly (no call yet from Albany) for food safety reasons having to do with the refrigeration, handling and cutting of the cheese. (I'll get into the issue of whether certain cheeses even need to be refrigerated soon.)

If this is the case—what else could it be?—here is my first question for Ag & Markets:
"Why are the cheese makers still allowed to offer samples of their cheeses, which are not refrigerated and handled in the exact manner as the custom cutting was for years?"
What am I missing?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

No More Cheese Cutting at New York State Farmers' Markets

For those who buy cheese from farmers' markets in New York State, I just heard some bad news from my friends at Bobolink Dairy, who make extraordinary cheeses using milk from grass-fed cows free of hormones and antibiotics:
"After nine problem-free years, the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets has suddenly decreed that cheeses can no longer be cut and wrapped at farmer's market stands in New York State. This means that you will no longer have the opportunity to admire our lovely cheeses in their entirety, or show us where to cut your perfect wedge.

"The good news is that we can still let you sample the cheeses, so you'll get to try before you buy. You may have to take a slice that is slightly smaller or larger than you had hoped for, but after nine years, we're pretty good at guessing how much of what size to cut!

"It's annoying to have to have to change our procedures, after such a long run of what most of you would consider a very professional and successful sanitation program, but we have no choice but to comply with the law.

"We plan to have photos of our farm and animals on display where the cheeses used to be, as the cheeses will now be secreted away in paper wrappers inside coolers!"
This is so heavy-handed and misguided, and will negatively impact both consumers and cheese makers. More on this tomorrow after I cool down a little.

But . . . speaking of cool(ers), I've never once put cheese I've bought from a farmers' market (except for feta and soft goat) in the refrigerator at home. Ugggh!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

FDA Releases New (but Limited) Sunscreen Rules

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released new rules yesterday concerning sunscreens, the first new regulations in over 30 years.

The new rules deal mostly with marketing and product labeling. For example, sunscreens will no longer be allowed to be deemed "waterproof," "sweatproof" or "sunblock," as these statements are untrue.

Unfortunately, the FDA did not address the actual composition of sunscreens; many scientists believe some ingredients in popular lotions are causing more harm than good.

As I mentioned last week, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) offers its 2011 Sunscreen Guide, a great resource on the subject.

EWG recommends mineral sunscreens using zinc and titanium, which offer better UVA protection.

In addition, we should be avoiding lotions containing vitamin A/retinyl palmitate and oxybenzone, because of their possible endocrine-disrupting and carcinogenic properties.

Click here to read more about vitamin A/retinyl palmitate.

Click here to read more about oxybenzone, which, according to EWG, is especially dangerous for children "because of its ability to penetrate the skin and its association with allergic reactions and potential hormone disruption."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How to Make a Quick Filet of Fish Sandwich

Here’s an idea for a quick sandwich, which takes less time and effort than you would think.

Sauté (click here for video
instructions) a filet of fish (I used black sea bass), put the filet on a bun or bread and add lettuce, tomato and coleslaw.

To prevent the fish from sticking to the pan when cooking, use a non-stick pan (cast iron is best). The goal is to get a crisp, brown exterior.

Your own filet o' fish sandwich in less than 10 minutes!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Nicholas Kristof Joins "No Antibiotics in Animals" Fight

The drum beat protesting the needless administering of antibiotics to our farm animals just got a little louder. In yesterday's paper, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof used the recent E. coli outbreak in Germany to segue into a discussion of the topic:
"Perhaps the most disgraceful aspect of our agricultural system — I say this as an Oregon farmboy who once raised sheep, cattle and hogs — is the way antibiotics are recklessly stuffed into healthy animals to make them grow faster."
I've discussed this topic several times recently, including last week after South Korea became the latest country to ban antibiotics. A Kristof column, though, will raise awareness exponentially.

Kristof uses a great analogy, one which should make us all reconsider our purchasing decisions:
"We would never think of trying to keep our children healthy by adding antibiotics to school water fountains, because we know this would breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It’s unconscionable that Big Ag does something similar for livestock."
Shouldn't antibiotic-free beef, chicken and pork be the rule, not the exception?

Click here to read Kristof's entire column.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Help Me Help Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Help Society

Those of you who follow this blog or have cooked with me know how seriously I take the issue of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, artificial colors and other synthetic additives in our food and water supply. By the day, the link between these chemicals and the explosion of chronic diseases, especially in children, is becoming more difficult to deny.

Last month, to demonstrate how strongly I believe we must limit these chemicals, I personally matched the first $1,000 that was donated to the Pesticide Action Network (PAN)—an organization doing essential policy work on our behalf—through a special link on PAN's website.

The match was a success; 33 people donated close to $2,000! Thank you to everyone who gave!

Even though my matching commitment was met, the link to give is still active. Click here to make a donation to PAN; every dollar is important in helping to fight the corporate and political interests that seem to relish making bushels of money at the expense of our health.

To read more about PAN's work, click here.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

FDA Suspends Use of Roxarsone, a Drug for Chickens

There's a lot of stuff in our food and much of it—pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, feed components—never appears on ingredient lists.

One invisible ingredient many of us have been eating unknowingly since the 1940s is 3-Nitro® (Roxarsone), Pfizer's arsenic-based drug administered to many of our chickens.

But, courtesy of the Food and Drug Administration, the drug's use will end next month. From the FDA website:

"FDA announced that Alpharma, a subsidiary of Pfizer Inc, will voluntarily suspend sale of the animal drug 3-Nitro® (Roxarsone) in response to a new FDA study of 100 broiler chickens that detected inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen, at higher levels in the livers of chickens treated with the drug 3-Nitro® (Roxarsone) than in untreated chickens."
Organic arsenic, which is not carcinogenic, is the arsenic used in Roxarsone. The thought is that it somehow synthesizes into toxic inorganic arsenic after being given to chickens. For an inside look at how some of our tax dollars are spent, click here to read the FDA's "Questions and Answers Regarding 3-Nitro (Roxarsone)," a detailed explanation of a process that doesn't happen that often anymore.

According to the New York Times article about the removal:
"The F.D.A. once routinely conducted its own studies of animal and human drugs, but limited budgets led the agency to eliminate much of its scientific and laboratory capacity over the years. The roxarsone study is a triumph for agency scientists but one unlikely to be repeated very often. The agency asked for $183 million in additional funds for food safety efforts next year, but House Republicans have instead proposed cutting $87 million."
Being treaded on once every few weeks may not be the worst of things.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The EWG Asks: Why Are Sunscreens Unsafe?

Another Wild West that consumers have to deal with? Sunscreens. (Click here to read a past post I wrote about sunscreens.)

The Environmental Working Group helps us wade through the confusion with its
sunscreen guide. Click here to learn more.

Also, I just received this email from EWG and signed the petition:
Why doesn't the government ensure that [sunscreens] are safe?

Even in its fifth season, EWG can only recommend one in five of the more than 600 sunscreens in its guide. That means 80 percent of what's been analyzed either doesn't provide adequate protection or contains potentially hazardous ingredients.

The fact that sunscreen manufacturers can market products that don't work -- or may actually cause harm to people who use them -- is utterly unbelievable.

The FDA hasn't issued any new sunscreen safety regulations for more than 30 years. EWG Action Fund is heading to the FDA next week to tell it to finally do its job to protect the American people. We are trying to get 50,000 signatures to take with us, will you be one of them? Act by Thursday at midnight.

Join EWG Action Fund and me in telling our government it needs to protect us from sunscreens that don't work or contain potentially dangerous ingredients. Sign by June 9 -- before we deliver your signatures to the FDA.

The government simply isn't overseeing the sunscreen industry.

When I tell people that those super-high SPF ratings are bogus, they can't believe it. They often ask: "Why isn't the government doing anything about it?" Good question. Why isn't it?

When you think of all the families that search for safe products that provide proper protection from the sun and that don't contain harmful ingredients, it's shocking that the FDA hasn't yet taken action on this issue. We can make better purchasing decisions, but we cannot shop our way out of this mess.

We need to get risky and inadequate products off the market.

Stand with EWG Action Fund and me in demanding the FDA address sunscreen safety today. Our best tool for sun protection is knowing which products can help us -- not hurt us.

Let's get our government on board so we can feel confident in the sunscreen products we buy for ourselves and our families.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

South Korea Bans Antibiotics for Healthy Farm Animals

While the battle to ban the non-medical administering of antibiotics to healthy farm animals in the United States tries to gain traction, South Korea has decided to join the European Union in restricting the use of the drugs.

Antibiotics are incorporated in low doses into animal feed. This speeds growth but has also led to the development of super bacteria resistant to antibiotics, jeopardizing the medicines essential to human health. In the United States, 70 percent of all antibiotics used are administered to healthy farm animals.

South Korea will go clean starting in July; the European Union enacted its ban in 2006. In both jurisdictions, farmers are allowed to treat sick animals with antibiotics.

Many in the United States are fighting for the same restrictions, sometimes taking novel approaches. For example, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other consumer groups just filed suit against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The legal justification? According to Avinash Kar, an NRDC staff attorney:

"[The] FDA concluded in 1977 that feeding animals low doses of certain antibiotics used in human medicine -- namely, penicillin and tetracyclines -- could promote antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can pose a health risk for people.

"The law requires FDA to act on this conclusion, but FDA has failed to do so. The lawsuit would compel FDA to take action on its own findings, and move to withdraw approval for uses of penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed for healthy animals.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A Quick and Easy Lunch (aka Cooking Is Easy)

Home cooked meals don't have to be elaborate, slaved-over productions.

Pictured is a simple lunch I made the other day; it took less than 10 minutes to prepare and did not require a degree from cooking school.

Radish? Wash and cut.

Greens for salad? Wash and tear into smaller pieces.

Asparagus? Cook in toaster oven at 350 until just soft (about four minutes).

Scrambled eggs with spinach? Heat butter in pan, add lightly beaten eggs, let sit for one minute, when eggs start to set, scramble with fork, cook until 75 percent done, turn off heat, add spinach, mix so spinach cooks from heat of eggs, add salt and pepper.

Bread (not shown)? Slice.

Cheese (not shown)? Cut wedge.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

92nd Street Y Talk: "Decoding Food Labels and Ingredients"

I'll be speaking at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan on Wednesday, June 15, giving a talk titled "Decoding Food Labels and Ingredients."

For more information and to buy tickets, click here.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Organic vs. Conventional Farming: At What Price Pesticides?

The go-to argument for proponents of conventional (read: chemical) farming is that the use of pesticides is the only way to feed the world's seven million people. Opponents of biodynamic and organic farming claim these safer ways of farming can't produce the necessary crop yields.

Yet, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence showing this isn't true. Unfortunately, oversized marketing and public relations budgets sometimes prevent the truth from being heard. Here are the first four paragraphs of "Organic Farming Finds a Growing Fan Base in India," which appears in today's International Herald Tribune:

"On Thakur Das’s farm in northern India, rice fields stretch into the distance, creating a chartreuse sea of waist-high stalks. Mr. Das, 59, gazed out at the crops on his small farm, about 16 kilometers from the city of Dehra Dun, where he grows rice, wheat and corn in rotation, as well as turmeric and beans. It looked to be another plentiful harvest. 'Too much growth,' he joked.

"The bounty was all the more fruitful because Mr. Das’s farm, 10 miles from the city, is organic. He has not used chemical pesticides or fertilizers since 2002, when he joined Navdanya, a nonprofit biodiversity center and organic farm, a few kilometers away, to learn how to farm organically. Since he went organic, Mr. Das said, his crop yields, and his profit, have doubled.

"Before Mr. Das switched to organic, one acre, or about 0.4 hectare, of land yielded 600 kilograms, or 1,300 pounds, of rice; now it yields 1,200 kilograms. He practices crop rotation and intercropping, or growing different crops together in the same field, and uses natural pesticides and fertilizer, like compost produced by worms.

“'Organic is best benefit. Taste is different. Size of grain is bigger,' said Mr. Das. 'Most farmers use chemicals. Soil is totally dead.'”
Click here to read the entire article and then click here to read "Chemicals in Farm Runoff Rattle States on the Mississippi," an article in today's New York Times which should make us all wonder, "At what price pesticides?"

Thursday, June 2, 2011

USDA Lowers Safe Cooking Temperature for Pork

Last week the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) lowered the safe cooking temperature for cuts of pork from 160 degrees to 145, a monumental decision for an agency still publishing the safe cooking temperatures for brontosaurus and pterodactyl.

Despite the government's previous standards, many chefs have been undercooking certain cuts of pork for years, in order to avoid dry, flavorless results.

The public, though, may still overcook pork, as the fear of trichinosis runs rampant, despite its virtual elimination in this country. However, as Food Safety News reports,
"Pork producers have been asking for the lower cooking standard since 2008, based in part on husbandry conditions that reduce the risk of exposure to pathogens. Trichinosis, a common zoonotic disease worldwide, has almost disappeared in connection with pork in the U.S. because so many pigs are now raised indoors. Most recent domestic cases of the disease have been associated with eating undercooked wild meat."
While pink pork has already been cooked and eaten by many for years, I learned something new while fishing around the USDA's website yesterday. Pink chicken (which I've been known to eat on occasion) isn't necessarily unsafe. According to the USDA:
"The color of cooked chicken is not a sign of its safety. Only by using a food thermometer can one accurately determine that chicken has reached a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F throughout. The pink color in safely cooked chicken may be due to the hemoglobin in tissues which can form a heat-stable color. Smoking or grilling may also cause this reaction, which occurs more in young birds."

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Kroger Makes Move to BPA-Free Cans

In another example of how public demand can influence corporate policy, Kroger, the nation's second-largest grocery store chain (after Walmart) announced in May that it is moving toward Bisphenol A (BPA)-free cans in its house-brand canned products:
"Kroger recognizes that Bisphenol A (BPA) is perceived as a chemical of concern by some customers.

"Kroger has begun a process that we believe will result in the removal of BPA in the linings of canned goods in all of our corporate brand items. We recognize that this transition will take time as our suppliers and manufacturers are still researching and testing feasible alternatives. This is a priority for our Company and we are moving forward with the transition as quickly as possible."
Some organic food companies have been using BPA-free cans for years, but when Kroger, which operates almost 2,500 supermarkets in 31 states, joins the parade, its actions will cascade throughout the food industry.

The suppliers and manufacturers now have a mandate to mass-produce BPA-free cans. When that process becomes standardized, it's a good bet that other retailers will order the cans as well. The new default will be BPA-free cans.

Using this model, we should think about the public's power to force change. Wouldn't it be great if the default chicken in our supermarkets was free of antibiotics? Wouldn't it seem logical that our school playgrounds and ball fields were not sprayed with poisonous pesticides?

Need another example of a company listening? Pepperidge Farm moved away from artificial colors in colored goldfish last year because of consumer preference.

We have power; we shouldn't be defeatist and think our purchasing decisions and voiced opinions don't lead to change.