By Barry Estabrook
[Barry’s weekly roundup of food news.]
Know Your Senator
Three prominent Republican United States senators sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently condemning the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program, introduced last fall to help strengthen local food systems.
John McCain (R-AZ), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), and Pat Roberts (R-KS) wrote that they had “serious misgivings” about Know Your Farmer. They asserted that the program is aimed at “small and organic producers” whose customers generally consist of “affluent patrons of urban farmers markets.”“Federal government cannot afford to spend precious Rural Development funds on feel-good measures which are completely detached from the realities of production agriculture,” they wrote.
Whew! That’s tough talk, but let’s shed a little perspective on the situation. On average during the past decade the Feds have doled out $17 billion (with a “B”) dollars a year to well-to-do growers of wheat, corn, soybeans, and other commodity crops. Some years these welfare payments to agribusiness have soared to $24 billion. Those are the “realities of production agriculture.”
By comparison, Know Your Farmer will cost about $65 million (with an “M”). Relatively speaking, that is less than chump-change, representing something like one-third of one percent of what the big boys reap in a good year. Yet growers of organic crops alone, only one of the groups to benefit from the program, account for 2.6 percent of the United States food market. And even though it is drastically underfunded by the government, organic has grown by 17 to 20 percent annually over the past few years. Big ag is virtually stagnant, growing by only 2 to 3 percent.
In view of the facts, the senators’ letter shows both mean spiritedness—and poor business sense.
They may be on the verge of extinction, but bluefin tuna might take a few sushi lovers down with them.
A study by Jacob Lowenstein of the American Museum of natural History in New York that appeared in the journal “Biology Letters” found that tuna sushi consistently exceeds recommended mercury levels. The researchers tested 100 samples of bluefin, bigeye, and yellowfin tuna from restaurants and supermarkets in New York, New Jersey, and Colorado. They found that a single order of every single sample tested was higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum consumption limits for a 132-pound woman.
Lessons from the Latest E. coli Outbreak
Once again, fresh greens contaminated with potentially fatal E. coli bacteria have sickened American consumers—this time 19 college students in New York, Michigan, and Ohio, who had eaten lettuce shipped in from Arizona and sold under the labels Freshway and Imperial Sysco
Some food safety advocates have used the outbreak to urge passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which cleared the house last summer and remains stalled in the Senate due to other priorities. (Covered here on mb.com.) But groups representing small and organic farmers have expressed fears that the one-size-fits-all nature of the bill will hurt their constituents. They draw a different lesson from the outbreak: Once again, large agri-business food production, growing crops out of season to be shipped thousands of miles, fails.
They have a point. Not one of the recent disease outbreaks that have been caused by fresh produce has been traced to crops grown by small producers serving local markets.