Unanswered Questions for the U.S.D.A.

My column this week is about a “lovers’ quarrel” between the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (N.C.B.A.) and the Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.). Following the withdrawal of an article in an internal U.S.D.A. newsletter supportive of Meatless Mondays – an occurrence that appears to have been directly triggered by an angry rant by the N.C.B.A.’s president – I asked both organizations for interviews; both declined. Here are the questions I had for the U.S.D.A.:

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No Meatless Mondays at the U.S.D.A.

A trade organization exists to promote the interest of its members; at least some of its work involves lobbying the government for preferential treatment, though most trade organizations would label this “fair.” It’s a clear mission and an unconflicted one; whether the interests of the trade organization coincide with those of the public at large is a matter of chance and not a governing concern. Thus in the course of the events of last week — events that will go down as an amusing footnote in the annals of food progress, and further evidence of government cowardice — the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association acted appropriately: it defended the interests of its members without worrying about the interests of the rest of us.

The Department of Agriculture, however, has multiple missions. One is “to keep America’s farmers and ranchers in business.” Sadly, although the statement doesn’t say which farmers and ranchers, in practice this has meant those who produce commodity crops: wheat, rice, cotton, corn and soybeans, and the animals and junk food whose production relies on the last two. The second is “to end hunger and improve health in the United States.” Last week, the U.S.D.A. betrayed its mission to improve health, acting in a cowardly fashion. For that it should be taken to task.

The events, which unfolded last Wednesday afternoon, could be seen as funny.

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The Endless Summer

Here’s what American exceptionalism means now: on a per-capita basis, we either lead or come close to leading the world in consumption of resources, production of pollutants and a profound unwillingness to do anything about it. We may look back upon this year as the one in which climate change began to wreak serious havoc, yet we hear almost no conversation about changing policy or behavior. President Obama has done nicely in raising fuel averages for automobiles, but he came into office promising much more, and Mitt Romney promises even less. (There was a time he supported cap and trade.)

It has been well over 100 years since the phenomenon called the greenhouse effect was identified, 24 years since the steamy summer of ’88, when many of us first took notice, and, incredibly, 15 years since the Kyoto Protocol. That agreement stipulated that signatories would annually reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases and was ratified (and even acted upon) by almost every country in the world, including every industrialized nation but one. That would be the United States. Now that’s exceptionalism. (Bill Clinton signed Kyoto; George W. Bush, despite an election pledge, repudiated it.)

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All Calories Are Not Created Equal

One of the challenges of arguing that hyperprocessed carbohydrates are largely responsible for the obesity pandemic (“epidemic” is no longer a strong enough word, say many experts) is the notion that “a calorie is a calorie.”

Accept that, and you buy into the contention that consuming 100 calories’ worth of sugar water (like Coke or Gatorade), white bread or French fries is the same as eating 100 calories of broccoli or beans. And Big Food — which has little interest in selling broccoli or beans — would have you believe that if you expend enough energy to work off those 100 calories, it simply doesn’t matter.

There’s an increasing body of evidence, however, that calories from highly processed carbohydrates like white flour (and of course sugar) provide calories that the body treats differently, spiking both blood sugar and insulin and causing us to retain fat instead of burning it off.

In other words, all calories are not alike.

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Good News in Food

Certainly there is plenty wrong with our food “system,” and it’s easy to point that out week after week. Every day there’s more bad news, and when credible people say that 900 million Indians are hungry — really hungry, not “dying” for a Snickers — the tendency is to get so depressed that one overlooks progress. (Perhaps, too, New Yorkers are born to kvetch.)

But here in the United States at least, every week there’s evidence that the pendulum is swinging. One could allow pessimism to reign, but it’s my sworn duty to occasionally point out some of The Good Stuff. And there’s been plenty the last few weeks. (All tempered, of course, but we’ll try to tame the inner curmudgeon here.)

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The PInk Menace

Rick Perry — remember him? — was more inspired as a defender of the beef processing industry than he was as a debater. Last week, Perry — along with Iowa’s governor-for-life Terry Branstad and Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas — implored the media to end its “smear campaign” against pink slime, the ammonia-treated burger extender he’d rather have us call by the name used by its producers: Lean Finely Textured Beef.

Whether “pink slime” is a fair handle or not, public outrage has thrown it off a cliff. Some of the country’s largest grocery chains have announced that they will no longer sell products containing it, as did McDonald’s, while Wendy’s emphatically insisted that it never has. The United States Department of Agriculture, a major buyer of pink slime for its National School Lunch Program, has offered participating schools the option to order their beef with or without it, though it will likely remain in many schools.

As a result, the largest producer of the stuff, Beef Products Inc., has suspended operations at three of its four plants for 60 days, by which time it hopes to do some public relations hocus-pocus to restore consumer confidence before resorting to permanent closures. We’ll see.

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The Right to Sell Kids Junk

The First Amendment to the Constitution, which tops our Bill of Rights, guarantees — theoretically, at least — things we all care about. So much is here: freedom of religion, of the press, of speech, the right to assemble and more. Yet it’s stealthily and  incredibly being invoked to safeguard the nearly unimpeded “right” of a handful of powerful corporations to market junk food to children.

It’s been reported that kids see an average of 5,500 food ads on television every year (sounds low, when you think about it), nearly all peddling junk. (They may also see Apple commercials, but not of the fruit kind.) Worse are the online “advergames” that distract kids with entertainment while immersing them in a product-driven environment. (For example: create your own Froot Loops adventure!)

And beyond worse: collecting private data, presumably in order to target children with personalized junk food promotions, as in this Capri Sun advergame, which asks for permission to use your webcam to film you — without first verifying your age.

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The Human Cost of Animal Suffering

Until a couple of years ago I believed that the primary reasons to eat less meat were environment- and health-related, and there’s no question that those are valid reasons. But animal welfare has since become a large part of my thinking as well. And I say this as someone not known to his friends as an animal-lover.

If we want a not-too-damaged planet to live on, and we want to live here in a way that’s also not too damaged, we’re better off eating less meat. But if we also want a not-too-damaged psyche, we have to look at how we treat animals and begin to change it.

We can start by owning up to the fact that our system is industrialized. And as horrible as that word — “industrialized” — seems when applied to what was once called animal husbandry, it is precisely the correct term. Those who haven’t seen this, or believe it to be a myth perpetrated by PETA, might consider reading “Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight,” recently published by Timothy Pachirat. (This isn’t a review, but the book is superbly written, especially given the grimness of the subject.)

You might think that “every 12 seconds” refers to the frequency with which we kill animals, but in a moment you’ll realize that that’s impossible: we process more than nine billion animals each year — hundreds per second. No, 12 seconds is the frequency with which the Omaha slaughterhouse where Pachirat worked for five months killed cattle, a total of around 2,500 per day.

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Regulating Our Sugar Habit

When Ronda Storms, a Republican state senator in Florida, is accused of nanny-state-ism for her efforts on behalf of a sane diet, it’s worth noting. When she introduced a bill to prevent people in Florida from spending food stamps on unhealthy items like candy, chips and soda, she broke ranks: few of her party have taken on Big Food. And as someone who has called for the defunding of an educational Planned Parenthood program and banning library book displays supporting Gay and Lesbian Pride Month, she is hardly in her party’s left wing. Not surprisingly, she’s faced criticism from every corner: Democrats think she’s attacking poor people, and Republicans seeMichelle Obama. Soon after Storms proposed the bill, she told me, “Coca-Cola and Kraft were in my office” hating it.

Yet she makes sense. “It’s just bad public policy to allow unfettered access to all kinds of food,” she told me over the phone. “Why should we cut all of these programs and continue to pay for people to use food stamps to buy potato chips, Oreos and Mountain Dew? The goal is to feed good food to hungry people.”

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Don’t Blame the Potato for Pringles

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Last week, Procter & Gamble sold its Pringles brand to Kellogg, for $2.7 billion.

In the scheme of things, this is not big news: a famous brand goes from one corporation to another. Happens all the time. Affects us barely, if at all; you’ll still never be more than a hundred yards from the all-too-familiar red Pringles canister, which, it’s said, made its designer so proud that he had his ashes packed into one after his death.

But the sale inspired some observations about the nature of  “food.” Let’s start with a fantasy: suppose P.&G., in a fit of charity, decided that Pringles was, as we all know to be true, a brand that everyone in the world — with the possible exception of P.&G. shareholders and a few employees — would be better off without. I mean, I like Pringles as much as the next guy, but they’re not really “food,” or — to be more accurate — they’re not “real” “food”[1] and I certainly know that I’d be better off without them.

Here’s a short list of other things that $2.7 billion could buy [2]. For that money, you could feed 75 million children for a year, or fund Unicef’s child-assistance operations for two years. You could pay cash for NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover mission ($2.5 billion), and have still be able to foot half the cost of the president’s proposed strengthening of oversight of offshore oil and gas operations, which would save money in the long run. Or you could hire more than 60,000 teachers. Stuff like that.

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