Dear Diary: Our Experiments
Question: What goes through the mind of one of our writers?
Answer: Let me tell you!
Today I thought I’d shed a little light on how to Dig Deep. Part of what that means is that theinformation posted in this blog, and on this site, is evidence-based. To me, Digging Deep means peeling back the surface layer of information to find evidence of how something works, or what is really true; looking at a claim or theory, and digging into the information the claim is based on, so I can form my own conclusions (and provide that info to you, the reader, so you can decide for yourself too). Sometimes this means trying something myself, other times it means a whole lot of research!
In digging deep, or reading the fruits of my labor, I think the most important thing to consider is WHO. WHO is sharing information with you. If it’s me, do I have any business writing about my topic? Or, have I provided you with documentation of reliable information sources, that show I’ve done my homework? You can throw everything else out the window and for the most part would be able to identify a well-known, non-biased, non-profit organization, like a public university or educational journal, or an expert individual with a well-documented case, as a verifiable expert. If the content provider doesn’t fall in to that bucket, you’ll have to dig a little deeper into the other areas - where is the money coming from, how does the author support their claim, things like that.
Here’s an easy list I came up with, primarily with regard to evaluating websites that provide health information. You can really apply these same questions to any topic, any medium:
Who IS speaking. Is it an expert in the field? A non-profit health or education foundation? An individual with no credentials? If there’s a study involved, who did it? If there are references, who are they referencing? The key here is who is providing you with information and are they qualified to be doing so, OR, are they providing you with enough information to support their conclusions.
What information are they sharing with you? Is it emotionally-laden opinion or a thorough scientific analysis? Did they perform an experiment, research the results of someone else’s, or is the information purely hypothetical?
When was the information last reviewed and updated? How old is the research? Is it the kind of topic where something might have changed over time?
Do the authors get THEIR information? Do they provide informational references, or have a background in a related discipline?
Why are they sharing the information with you, for education or to promote an agenda? Are they trying to sell you something (and is it obvious and seems ok to you, or is it sneaky, and more than you want to see)? Is there association with any organization that may have a bias on the topic you are researching?
How is the information-sharing medium funded? Do you have to pay to get your info and why? Are you ok with that? Does the funding come from a person or entity who has a vested interest in a particular outcome?
My personal interest in you having this information is that I believe we all have the right to evidence-based knowledge about things that effect us and the people we love. It’s a benefit to me for you to know how to verify the information I provide you (and call me on it, if it’s not up to snuff!), because I love that Digging Deep is all about telling this evidence-based truth, and I think that differentiates this site from many others.. It is my hope that the more we support quality information providers (and the less we support unsubstantiated claims), the more truth that’s out there. Happy digging!
Question: Will new poultry processing regulations endanger food safety?
Answer: It’s looking more and more that way
If you caught my post last week, you’ll remember that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has proposed a new rule regarding poultry processing that could impact the safety of your chicken. The New Poultry Inspection System, based on a small pilot called HIMP, will privatize some inspection duties, increase maximum slaughter line speed, and allow for “offline reprocessing antimicrobial agents” [read bleach and other approved chemicals] to sanitize carcasses.
According to the FSIS, implementing this new system will lead to more sanitary meat, decreasing rates of salmonella and other foodborne pathogens, and save money in the process —and their argument seems pretty strong if you can muddle your way through the technical terminology of theirofficial proposal.
However, the story isn’t ever that simple, now is it? According to Food & Water Watch, one of the proposal’s staunchest opponents, implementing HIMP-style inspection systems would be a food safety disaster.
After analyzing data from the pilot program, FWW showed that industry employees, tasked with thejob of sorting and inspecting poultry after it is slaughtered, routinely miss defects and contamination. Ninety-percent of the “non-compliance records” handed out by USDA inspectors were for fecal contamination (that would be poop on your food, folks).
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), representing the concerns of USDA-employed poultry inspectors, has also come out against the proposed rule. AFGE’s main concern is that the new rule would eliminate almost 1,000 federal inspector positions. Billed as a taxpayer savings effort, the new rule would shift some of the sorting and inspecting responsibilities to processing plant employees. In addition to this being a concern about jobs, the AFGE also questions what impact the privatization will have on public health.
Federal meat inspectors are required to have three years of experience, through training and/or education, to do their job. Under the new rule, industry-employed inspectors will have to have none. While FSIS believes that training is vitally important, they will place no requirement that industry employees undergo specific training for sorting and inspecting processed poultry. Instead, they would give processing establishments “flexibility” in choosing their training method. FSIS maintains that processing establishments have incentive enough to train their employees well. Interesting thought…but what with the annual 1.2 million cases of food poisoning already a result of contaminated chicken, I’m not so sure I’d trust the industrial meat industry to self-regulate.
It’s all about the BPM (that’s Birds Per Minute, not Beats): Regardless of who actually employs the inspectors, one of the major contentions about the new poultry inspection rule has to do with how fast inspectors will be required to do their job. The new system would increase the maximum speed of the slaughter line to 165-200 bpm, requiring that inspectors examine about 3 birds per second. Yep, that’s fast. Too fast, some might say.
Oh, and since inspectors going at 3 birds per second probably won’t catch each case of fecal contamination or systemic disease, the new system allows for chemicals to be used on the meat to kill bacteria like salmonella and e.coli. Not a fan of ammonia-laced “pink slime”? Then, this should freak you out too.
Public comment is being taken on the FSIS proposal until April 26 (that’s one week from today!), so tell the USDA what you think about their poultry processing plans. You can click here to sign a petition urging the USDA to quash the rule before it goes into effect.
Let Them Eat Chicken-blog devoted to opposition of this proposed rule
Photo Credit: USDAgov
Answer: Yes, a whole lot!
Pop culture includes music, television, film, and fashion. It reaches into our homes, schools, neighborhoods and community centers. Most Americans are a teeny bit obsessed by celebrity, and our obsession with the rich and famous often begins at a young and vulnerable age. To a preschool aged boy, the image of Spiderman is defined by strength, speed and secret powers – and the sugar heavy products displayed with his image are therefore desirable (to a four year old). It’s an obvious marketing ploy, and it is effective. The average American child sees 10,000 commercials on television marketing food and beverages – and most of them are for products such as sugar sweetened cereals, fast food, chips, sweets and other unhealthy foods. The food industry spends 30 billion dollars per year on advertising, targeting children and adults. And it’s been said before, but it may be worth echoing the fact that if marketing didn’t work, the industry wouldn’t spend this incredible amount of money to get us to buy their products!
No matter what we do or where we go, pop culture influences us to some degree on what we eat and how we feed our families. Sometimes the influence is positive. All types of media have an opportunity to provide a message to us visually, or through song, or other means. By exploring the power of pop culture, it’s interesting to examine our own choices when meal planning or meal contemplating. Consider the artists, politicians and others known in the media whom you admire most. The actress Alicia Silverstone is a strong advocate for a vegan diet. As part of her efforts to prevent obesity, the First Lady made backyard gardening popular to many Americans who hadn’t gardened in years (or ever!). Many well-known singers, dancers and movie stars promote wellness through consumption of organic and healthful foods. But who in pop culture is a voice for the local food movement? Is there any popular artist that is a serious proponent for a just, healthy and sustainable food system? Or must we remain ever vigilant against marketing forces that perpetuate the images that are so attractive to our children, and yet placed on processed products whose ingredient lists are unpronounceable? I fear we must, at least right now. Let’s applaud those men and women, super pop stars to millions, who take steps to influence the way we eat in a good way. And let’s hope both parents and the food industry pay attention.
The future relationship of the media, the food industry and the consumer http://bmb.oxfordjournals.org/content/56/1/254.full.pdf
The Influence of the Media on Food Consumption and Body Image
Question: Did I have better luck searching for local dairy at my friendly neighborhood co-op?
Answer: You betcha.
When I last was on the local dairy hunt, I hung out with my husband at our local Whole Foods. This time, I escaped my preschooler’s gymnastics class by heading downstairs to our local food co-op. And though I may not have struck gold, I certainly came closer than I had before.
I’ve been shopping at the East End Food Co-op since my college days, when I was scared by labels I didn’t recognize and fumbled over the bulk spice section (thankfully, I never spilled a $25/oz jar of anything while I was there). Now as a frazzled working mom, I still feel not quite crunchy enough to eat there, but the Co-op does a good job in being welcoming to people with and without dreadlocks. Open since 1977, for a long time this was the only local game in town.
And the dairy section – oh, the dairy section. It is a mecca of local products. In a much smaller space than Whole Foods, the dairy section is a much larger percentage of the store, and fully one-fourth of the cheese section is local. NOM.
While there’s quite some overlap with the local products at Whole Foods, the Co-op has a much larger selection of products from the local providers’ lines. Here’s the lowdown (don’t forget, local in this exercise is in PA and surrounding states, special note for providers within approximately 100 miles):
- Nine cheese producers, four within 100 miles. Now we’re talking.
- No sour cream, drat. Maybe I spoke too soon.
- Two ricotta, both within 100 miles.
- Two cow’s milk yogurts, neither one within 100 miles. Apparently Philadelphia is the locus of PA yogurt production.
- One sheep’s milk yogurt and two goat’s milk yogurts, both goat’s milk operations within 100 miles.
- Four cow’s milk (two raw), three within 100 miles.
- Two goat’s milk (one raw), both within 100 miles.
- One butter, half and half, and buttermilk (overlap with one of the milk producers, within 100 miles)
- No heavy cream. Double drat.
Even without sour cream and heavy cream, that’s twenty-two products from eighteen producers, thirteen of which are within 100 miles. And you can feel like you’re sticking it to the man when you’re shopping there. A much better outcome on this leg of the dairy quest.
Now, who’s up for some cow tossing?
Photo Credit: East End Food Co-op
Question: Will new poultry processing regulations endanger food safety?
The USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) has proposed a new rule to modernize the poultry inspection process, but the proposal has ruffled the feathers of some industry and consumer advocacy groups (like Food &Water Watch and the American Federation of Government Employees). While the FSIS claims that the new rule will improve poultry inspection and reduce incidence of food-born illness, opponents claim that the changes will endanger food safety and destroy jobs.
I was all ready to write a “yeah, down with the man!”-style post decrying the evils of this new rule, but after taking a good deal of time to read the actual text of the proposal, I had to reconsider my opinion. Like most debates in life, the issue isn’t as cut and dry as pundits on either side would have it seem.
For those of you who don’t have endless hours to read jargon-y documents about obscure regulations, I’m attempting to break it down. This week, I’ll try to suss out what exactly this new rule is all about, and why it might be a good thing. In Poultry Processing Part II (forthcoming), I’ll cover the opposition’s argument and try to draw some conclusions about the complicated matter.
It is the FSIS that is responsible for ensuring public health by inspecting all meat intended for human consumption for signs of disease, fecal contamination, blemishes, and defects. The proposed Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection rule would replace old standards of inspection with the New Poultry Inspection System. The proposal comes out of a 2011 presidential Executive Order mandating that government agencies review existing rules and regulations that may be outdated or ineffective.
The New Poultry Inspection System is based on a pilot program called the HACCP-based Inspection Model Project (HIMP), which has been running in about two-dozen facilities since 1998. It would decrease the number of federally employed inspectors on each processing line, increase the maximum speed of processing and inspection, and shift sorting duties to processing establishment employees (rather than FSIS inspectors).
In the new system, FSIS inspectors will still be looking for carcasses that seem to either be diseased or contaminated with fecal matter, but they will do so only after establishment employees do a preliminary sorting, removing and disposing of any carcasses that appear to exhibit septecemic or toxemic (aka diseased) conditions. Once the initial sorting has been done, FSIS employees will only be inspecting birds that are ready to go in to the chiller.
Why it might be a good thing
The goal of the new system is to eliminate inefficiencies and redirect FSIS resources to more effective ways of increasing food safety. FSIS estimates that the changes would save the government $85-95 million over three years. In addition to saving money, it should also improve public health. The FSIS claims that this new rule improves food safety by freeing up inspectors from “online” duties and allowing them to conduct food safety-related inspections off the processing line. In comparison studies, FSIS found that in operations following the HIMP guidelines, “inspectors are able to spend more time in prevention-oriented inspections, which better protects the public from foodborne disease.” The HIMP study also showed that salmonella and fecal contamination rates are lower in the HIMP facilities than in non-HIMP facilities.
If these claims are true, then the new rule seems like a great thing for both the government and for consumers. However, major concerns about the changes still abound. Tune in next week for a review of why major organizations like Food & Water Watch and federal food inspectors themselves are adamantly opposed to the changes.
Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection- full text of the FSIS proposal
Let Them Eat Chicken-blog devoted to opposition of this proposed rule
Sources for this Post:
Photo Credit: USDA.gov
If it's a root vegetable or in the allium family, you can do something with it, though it might not be what you expected. Here's the lowdown on a few things you're likely to have in your crisper drawer.
Carrots: Carrots that have started to grow roots and sprout greens can be planted for more greens (the carrot is actually a taproot so once it's pulled, it can't regenerate more carrots). Greens work well for juicing or in vegetable stock, and since carrots are biennial plants, you can let it go to seed and try your hand at seed saving.
Garlic: If a head of garlic has started to sprout, you can separate the cloves and plant in the ground.
Ginger: While it's not likely that ginger root from the store will sprout without help, it can grow plants up to three feet tall.
Turnips: Like carrots, turnips won't produce more turnips, but you can get turnip greens for salads out of the deal.
Links in this Post:
Question: How do I find out if lead is a concern in my garden, and what do I do about it?
Answer: Get your soil tested, amend it, plant fruiting plants, and optimize your nutritional status.
It’s about the time of year to get started on my garden. I don’t have a nice, big, sunny yard, so I put my name on the waiting list for my city’s community garden. Unfortunately, the one closest to my house is right on a highway, and I was unsure about what that might mean, both for my gardening experience, and for the quality of the soil. With urban gardening becoming more and more common, lead from this kind of pollution can be an issue - the primary mechanisms for lead pollution being old paint and car exhaust, and lead in soil in urban areas is common.
According to the EPA there is no safe level of lead consumption. However, lead does not easily absorb into plants, so if your tested levels of lead are categorized as safe, there’s not too much concern, unless you have small children - then the level considered safe is lower than for an adult.. If you’re worried anyway, vegetables that grow underground (carrots, radishes, potatoes) and leafy greens accumulate more lead than fruit bearing plants. So plant beans, cucumbers, and eggplant, rather than kale or chard. You can also get yourself tested, before your garden as a baseline, and periodically to make sure you’re not taking on any toxic burden.
There are also things you can do to your soil to mitigate absorption. Raising the pH of any acidic soil will help, as lead is more easily absorbed by plants in acidic soil. Adding phosphorous helps, as it binds with the lead so it’s not available for the plant. Amending your soil with compost helps too: the broken down plant matter in compost is high in humic acid, a chelator, which buffers soil pH, helps to make important nutrients more available for plants, while binding with lead to keep it from being absorbed. Your extension department (or whoever does your soil testing) can help you figure out what to do.
If you get your soil tests and the levels are not safe, remove and replace your topsoil (to minimize physical contact) and plant flowers. Sunflowers and mustard greens have both been found to actually remove lead and other heavy metals from soil (called phytomitigation or phytoextraction), so plant a few crops of those, and retest.
With any lead levels in your soil at all, it’s important to clean vegetables thoroughly of dirt before eating. And, eating those vegetables will help protect your body, if you do end up exposed. Nutrient deficiencies allow for increased lead absorption into your body, while a fed, nourished person will be more resilient.
I ended up deciding that any lead was too much lead for me, and I didn’t want to sit by a highway in the sun anyway. So I found another garden that is a little more remote. I can’t walk to it, but I think I’ll enjoy weeding more, and I can focus on the challenge of getting things to grow well (I do not have a green thumb) instead of how to avoid heavy metals.
This week, we review the reviews, as it were, and try to come to a final answer to our question: where should we go to buy our produce?
The answer, not surprisingly, is that there is no one be-all, end-all answer. The right choice for you depends on what you value most.
If price is your primary concern: go to the supermarket. I wouldn’t have assumed at the outset of this investigation that I’d be saying this, but it really is true: conventional supermarkets buy in bulk and can thus pass the savings along to you. Nowhere can you as a consumer get better bargains and control spending as well as you can as at your local grocery store. Trader Joe’s will suffice in a pinch, as they are quite good at controlling costs, but both the selection and freshness of TJ’s produce are of concern to me, so I wouldn’t recommend making a habit of choosing that store for my fruits and veggies. This goes double – triple? – for buying produce off the back of a truck. But then, you probably knew that.
If you care most about selection: the farmer’s market is for you. As Adam Smith first noted, in a well-functioning free market, firms will compete for the business of the buyer, and no market is freer than a farmer’s market. Given the fact that most small farms focus on small, specific varieties of produce, even a smaller farmer’s market will likely offer you greater choice than even the biggest brick-and-mortar stores.
If time is tight in your busy schedule: the CSA is your best bet. You waste no time selecting or standing in line; you place your order, then swing by and pick it up at a scheduled time that’s convenient for you. You’re sacrificing autonomy, but in return you’re saving that precious resource of clock ticks, and you might just get exposed to some new favorite fruits and vegetables, too.
If you have plenty of time, or plenty of money: go to Whole Foods. Another answer I never thought I’d give when I started out, Whole Foods really is the gold standard for produce – still. If you’ve got time on your hands to bargain-shop, or if you just don’t worry much over the price of your groceries at all, Whole Foods really is the best place to go to get fruits and vegetables. One reader – who identified herself as “an old-time hippie who used to work at New York City’s first vegetarian restaurant way back when” – had this to say: “The produce section at Whole Foods is beautiful. It’s filled with good aromas. It puts people in a good mood – myself included! Sometimes I go there just to browse.”
This, too, surprised me – the amount of reader response this little inquiry generated. A reader in Colorado responded to my original Trader Joe’s post, noting that she used to work at the chain and found my reporting on their produce problems spot-on. Multiple readers wrote in to suggest that I visit an ethnic grocery store (Middle Eastern, Asian, or Latino) to find new options and great deals, and while I eventually decided to exclude such a visit because of the wide heterogeneity of such stores across the country – what value is my report if it doesn’t hold water in my readers’ necks of the woods? – I still think the idea is a good one, and I recommend that you fellow fresh fruit and veg sleuths out there take it to heart.
Myth busted? Problem solved? Perhaps not. But at least you health-hungry single shoppers and head-scratching new dads and moms can now be aided by this guidepost along the path – or, rather, the produce aisle.
Question: Why is it so hard to get local dairy products other than cheese?
Answer: I have absolutely no idea.
A friend recently lamented the lack of good local crème fraîche in his area – and he brought up a point I never considered. Local artisanal cheese is all the rage these days, and most places seem to have the standard neighborhood dairies for public school lunch milk, but what about other dairy? Why is it so hard to find certain local dairy products? If you’re interested in reducing your food miles, but want some really good cottage cheese, what should you do?
I’m still digging into the why behind this dearth of dairy diversity (I suspect it has something to do with the value added to the end product) but wanted to test my friend’s hypothesis. Since I’m in Pennsylvania and he’s in Florida, I figured I might have better luck finding local dairy products in this part of the country.
So off I went (my husband gamely in tow) to our local Whole Foods after date night. Yes, I know, we’re sad, sad people. Anyway. Aside from being the closest place open after 9 pm, Whole Foods really tries hard to cater to the foodie crowd. When the guy stocking yogurt asks you if you try to eat local as much as possible, you know it’s pretty ingrained in their corporate culture.
For this exercise, I’m defining local two ways: the more generous definition is anything I could find from Pennsylvania or neighboring states. The more strict local definition is anything within approximately 100 miles.
Here’s what I found:
- three cheese producers, two within 100 miles. Given the sheer size of the Whole Foods cheese selection, I thought this was a pretty pathetic showing.
- two sour cream, one within 100 miles. The local sour cream had a retro chic label that the hipsters love – you know, the one that hasn’t changed since the place opened in 1930.
- one ricotta (overlap with the non-retro sour cream place)
- three yogurts, none within 100 miles. Two are in the Philadelphia Metro area, and the other (Fage, the big Greek yogurt company) is outside of Schenectady, NY.
- three milk, two within 100 miles.
- one butter (overlap with one of the milk producers)
- one heavy cream, just barely within 100 miles as the crow flies in southern Ohio.
That’s twelve local dairy products from twelve producers, six of whom are within 100 miles of Pittsburgh. Only two of these, both milk producers (one of whom also makes butter), are certified organic. Given that the entire back wall of the store, and a good section of a side wall, is covered in dairy products, only twelve local (or local-ish) products to be found was unexpected and more than a little sad.
I’ll keep this experiment going, looking for more local dairy (and eating some good cheese along the way). In the meantime, keep in mind that it’s easy to see where your dairy started – almost all of the products I looked at tonight had their full address easily legible on their packaging.
Question: Which type of coffee should we be drinking, and why?
Answer: There are many options, some better than others.
I’m a woman who loves her java, and I mostly stick to one local source that buys green coffee beans at a fair price from growers located all over the world, and then roasts and processes the beans close to home.
When curious about other sources, the options are vast. Many types of ethical coffees are on the market. Coffee may be organic, shade grown or fair trade, and sometimes, all three. Which is the right bean to buy? And by right, I mean right by the environment and the economy - from when the plant is tended and harvested to when the steaming beverage is placed in your hands.
Let’s start with the environment. Organic coffee is grown without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or insecticides. Coffee is grown in tropical areas, and use of chemical products harms the soil in which the plant is grown over time, depending on quantity and timing of it use.
To me, the land is important, but the people come first. Having worked on an organic coffee and macadamia nut farm in southern Mexico, I observed firsthand the labor of the men, women and children who arrived at dawn to pick dark red coffee beans. They worked till late afternoon filling large baskets, and rarely took a break. I picked beans briefly myself, once, and it’s not easy work. Workers on coffee farms are paid extremely low wages, and especially so when one considers the value of the end result. The cost of a single cup of coffee, depending on size and specialty, costs between $2 and $5 at Starbucks, and the American coffee drinker consumes over three cups per day!
The term “Fair Trade” means that the companies growing the coffee are paying their workers a fair wage and often support healthier living standards for their employees and their families.
Shade grown coffee is simply coffee grown in a more natural setting, surrounded by other plants and trees. Because it produces less coffee than plants grown in direct sun, many companies choose to clear away the other plants to increase production. The consequences of this decision are unclear, but may include having to use additional pesticides and fertilizers.
Since most coffee isn’t grown in the United States (Hawaii is the only state where coffee is grown, and some parts of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico), it’s impossible to buy local. If you buy coffee at a supermarket or convenience store, find out if the company practices fair trade and/or if it’s organic. When you buy from a company with a mission grounded in ethics and equity, you will support social and environmental practices through procuring Fair Trade, organic, shade grown coffee.
Buying Fair Trade coffee can be more expensive than conventional coffee. But if you bypass the shop and brew your own coffee at home, you will pay just a little bit more and greatly benefit those with much less.
- Butter 'Em Up
- The Great Grocery Hunt Part 7: The Local Farmer’s Market
- That darn dog!
- Garden Anxiety
- Drat that plastic!
- Sprouting Up In a Kitchen Near You
- THE GREAT GROCERY HUNT PT. 6: Trader Joe’s
- Road Eats: Farm to Table Across America’s Heartland
- THE GREAT GROCERY HUNT PT. 5: WHOLE FOODS
- You’ve been slimed