The Politics of the Plate


By Barry Estabrook 

[Barry Estabrook, the former food and politics writer at Gourmet, blogs at His story about the horrors of labor and Florida-grown tomatoes was among the best of 2009, and it isn’t only me who thinks so – he won a Beard award last night. On Twitter, he regularly serves up snippets about food and politics @Barry_Estabrook. And here on, he will be contributing a weekly roundup on newsworthy food events. – mb]

Strike Three for Atlantic Bluefin

Endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna can’t seem to catch a break. Strike one came late last year when the International Commission on the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas voted to allow fishermen to take 13,500 metric tons of tuna this year, a number that the commission’s own scientists said left the majestic fish with only a 50-50 chance of avoiding extinction. Strike two was thrown in March by the Committee on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) when they buckled under Japanese lobbying and voted not to give the species protection.

 Last week, it was British Petroleum’s turn to deal a devastating blow to Atlantic bluefins with oil leaking from its sunken drilling platform off Louisiana. The Gulf of Mexico is one of only two spawning grounds for the fish and it happens that now is peak time for mating, said Chris Mann of the Pew Environmental Trust in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. Fortunately, the heart of the breeding grounds lies southwest of the oil slick, but Mann worried that prevailing winds might blow bluefin eggs into the contaminated area.

Genetically Modified Justice a la Clarence Thomas

Last month, the Supreme Court began hearings on a case that could be pivotal to both sides of the GMO argument. In 2007, a lower court issued an injunction against planting genetically modified alfalfa produced by Monsanto after determining that the United States Department of Agriculture had approved its use without sufficient scrutiny. Monsanto is appealing the injunction. 

 Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer recused himself because his brother was a judge in the lower court case. Fair enough. But conservative judge Clarence Thomas, who did legal work for Monsanto back in the 1970s, declined to recuse himself. Oral arguments last week indicated that Clarence’s conservative colleagues on the bench were not buying the argument that the GM alfalfa could contaminate nearby non-GMO alfalfa. A decision is expected this summer.

Coke to Shareholder Group: Things Go Better with BPA

Last month 22 percent of Coca-Cola’s shareholders supported a resolution asking the soft drink company to disclose how it is dealing with concerns about the safety of bisphenol A, a plastic coating used to line the inside of cans. The company refused to provide the asked-for information, saying that it would not be “useful to our shareholders,” according to Food Quality News. The company said it would continue to take its guidance about the chemical’s safety from regulatory agencies. 

 Maybe the Coke execs should take a look at the latest information from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which recently ordered new studies into the chemical’s safety. In a January update to on BPA, the FDA said that it shared “the perspective of the National Toxicology Program that recent studies provide reason for some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children.”

It also said, “In addition, FDA is supporting reasonable steps to reduce human exposure to BPA, including actions by industry.”

Obama’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Policy on GMO Foods

An obscure unit of the United Nations called Codex begins meetings this week in Quebec City, and its deliberations could determine whether food processors who trade internationally will be permitted to say on labels that their products are free of GMO ingredients.

That’s right. The Obama administration is pushing a position first articulated by the Bush Whitehouse that foods sold internationally should not be labeled “No GMOs” even if the statement is true. The administration claims that telling the public the truth about GMOs is “false, misleading, or deceptive.” Their somewhat convoluted reasoning: there is no difference between GMO and non-GMO food and telling the truth might make consumers think there is. (Photograph by iStockphoto)

Posted in Food Politics, Seafood