By Barry Estabrook
Organic Economic Indicators
Looking for tangible signs that the recession is loosening its grip? Last week, major organic food producers, wholesalers, and retailers—who had taken hits during the meltdown as consumers lost their appetites for their pricey fare—announced heartening financial news.
●United Natural Foods, Inc., a wholesaler of natural and organic foods, saw its share price hit its highest level in more than three years.
●Whole Foods Market, Inc. reported that its earnings were the best “in several years” as sales for the quarter came in at more than twice what they were during the same period last year. Its stock is trading at nearly five times the 2008 low.●Horizon, the country’s largest organic milk producer, announced that sales returned to positive growth in the first three months of this year.
●Shares of Hain Celestial Group hit their highest levels since late 2008 as financier Carl Icahn boosted his ownership in the firm because he felt that it was undervalued.
Forbes magazine recently put Icahn’s worth at a cool $10.5 billion. Organic naysayers take note: He’s done quite well for himself by putting his money where his mouth is.
BPA and the Beanstock
A growing body of research had linked bisphenol A (BPA) to harmful effects in humans and animals that are exposed to the plastic, used in baby bottles, plastic containers, and as a liner for food and beverage cans. BPA has been associated with reproductive damage, early onset of puberty, neurological harm, changes in brain development, and male sexual dysfunction.
But what does the chemical do to plants? An undergraduate at Dixie State College of Utah hypothesized the stuff would kill them. To test his theory, Jareau Cordell fertilized green beans and mustard greens with water that had been heated in a microwave in a baby bottle he’d picked up in a dollar-store. Instead of withering and flopping over, the plants thrived, growing bigger and broader, and producing more impressive root systems.
“These results are completely unexpected,” Cordell’s professor, David Jones, told Tiffany De Masters, a reporter for The Spectrum, a local newspaper. Analysis showed that the plants were absorbing the BPA and concentrating it in their tissue.
But before you repeat the experiment on your own patio tomatoes, heed the professor’s words: “I don’t think this is a positive thing. I think it’s a dangerous thing.”
Cordell, who is off to do a fellowship at Johns Hopkins medical school shared his findings with the Food and Drug Administration, which in an about face over previous approval of the chemical’s safety, announced earlier this year that it ispursuing additional studies into the safety of BPA.
Foie Gras Pollution
Folks can debate whether or not foie gras production is cruel to the ducks that are feed massive amounts of grain to enlarge their livers to unnatural proportions, but in at least one production facility, there seems to be little argument that it is bad for the environment.
Earlier this month a Manhattan judge issued an injunction against Hudson Valley Foie Gras in Ferndale, N.Y., the country’s biggest foie gras raiser, ordering it to stop discharging waste into the Middle Mongaup River, a tributary of the Deleware River.
“This facility has flouted federal pollution laws for years, and we are delighted to see justice done for the environment, animals and local residents who have all suffered at the hands of this factory farm,” said Jonathan R. Lovvorn, vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation at The Humane Society of the United States, which filed the suit.
Eat Organic; Lessen Risk of Cancer
That is the take-home message delivered last week by the President’s Cancer Panel in a report. The panel said that cancers caused by environmental factors such as chemicals could be “grossly underestimated” and recommended that President Obama use his office to remove toxins from water, air, and food.
Addressing the last item on that list, the group said that consumers who wanted to reduce their exposure to carcinogenic chemicals should choose foods that are grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. The American Cancer Society said that parts of the report were overblown, but it agreed that there are too many synthetic chemicals in the food chain.
And lest this be taken for yet another partisan rant, both members of the panel were appointed by President Bush.
A Gaping Hole in the Food Safety Net
Legislation currently in the senate aims to tighten regulations and inspection of American food producers and growers—much to the chagrin of small and organic farmers, who worry about the expense of unnecessary rules and burdensome inspections.
But a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggests that the Food and Drug Administration might be better off diverting some resources to regulate foreign producers of the food we eat. There are about 190,000 registered foreign facilities that produce food for export to the United States. Of those, only 200 (roughly 1 out of every 1,000) were inspected by the FDA.
A little melamine, anyone?
(Photo: Whole Foods Market)