Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Chipotle advertisement

Willie Nelson covers an eloquent Coldplay song in this new advertisement from Chipotle. 

The animation makes us hunger for a simpler time when farms were small and animals were free to go wherever they chose, without fences, before there were assembly lines and food was transported in tractor trailers on highways.

What year was that exactly?  I'm not quite sure.  But whenever it was, I want the time machine to that year.

Yet, I can see for myself that Chipotle makes its burritos on an assembly line right in front of the customer. Chipotle's "Food with Integrity" position on animal production is quite good, but surely the meat comes from very large farms with thousands of animals.  I know Chipotle food reaches the restaurant in tractor trailers on highways.  Perhaps the imagery overreaches what a fast-food restaurant can be expected to achieve.

The song makes me want to go to my town's farmers market, which is open on Wednesdays.  I will still eat at Chipotle, sometimes, but I know what I'm buying.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Are food price increases always bad?

From my interview this week by Gail Bambrick in TuftsNow.
Does it seem like you need a second mortgage to fill your cart at the grocery store these days? Are these price spikes that hit us at the checkout line for real, or not as bad as they seem? A lot depends on which prices you consider.

Take the old standby of meat and potatoes. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), over the past two years a pound of ground beef went from an average of $2.23 per pound to $2.77, an increase of almost 25 percent. By contrast, potato prices rose over the past two years from $.63 to $.69 per pound, an increase of only 8 percent.

According to Parke Wilde, an associate professor and food economist at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, U.S. food prices are more complicated than they appear at first glance....

Are those increases going to harm the economy?
This is the hardest thing for economists to express to people, because it sounds on the face of it totally loony: not all food price increases are bad. You have to ask yourself, is the food price increase a mistake or does it reflect a genuine scarcity? If things are really scarce, economists think prices ought to be high, because that sends the right message to everybody. It indicates to consumers that they should moderate their consumption, and it indicates to producers to innovate and produce more efficiently. These are all good things that can happen. Moderating consumption should not mean people going hungry, but perhaps going a little easier on the meat consumption, because that uses more resources than raising fruits and vegetables and grains.
A price change has two effects. It changes how well-off we are. And it changes the market's assessment of relative scarcity.

First, in thinking about how well-off we are, consider producers that you care about as well as consumers. Higher prices make producers better off and consumers worse off. They help some people and hurt others. Now, for a moment, set aside this issue of being richer or poorer.

Second, in thinking about relative scarcity, ask yourself if you think food really is becoming more scarce. Don't panic about it, just acknowledge that there are strong environmental reasons for thinking of food as scarce. In this setting, are you sure you would want food prices in the marketplace to stay forever low?

Here is the full interview.

Photo: Emily Zilm.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Summertime Food Smarts

The American Dietetic Association (ADA) and ConAgra Foods are jointly sponsoring an initiative to get bloggers to write about food safety.  In return, the bloggers are entered to win an iPad in a raffle.

To be eligible, the blog entries must be at least 400 words, and they must link back to the ADA / ConAgra sponsored website  This website offers advice on how consumers can protect themselves from foodborne illness by washing hands, heating cooked foods to the right temperature, chilling foods properly, and throwing food out at the appropriate time.

The ADA / ConAgra sponsored website makes no suggestion whatsoever that food manufacturers should take care to ensure that their food is safe.  There is no mention of past food safety problems for ConAgra.  I could find no advice for consumers on what foods or food sources have the highest rate of contamination with pathogens.  There is a ticker applet in the right sidebar of the website, listing recent food recalls from USDA.  Yet, for this website, the burden of ensuring food safety rests with the consumer's kitchen practices alone.

Participating blogs adhered to this same uncritical convention, as far as I can see.  You can find all the participating blogs by googling "summertime food smarts" and "iPad" together.  The blogs were required to disclose their participation in the raffle.  If any reader can find any mention in any participating blog post that manufacturers share any responsibility for food safety, please report your findings in the comments.

In 2002, ConAgra recalled 19 million pounds of beef trim and fresh and frozen beef products (.pdf) in connection with an E. coli outbreak that involved 28 illnesses and 1 death.  This was one of the top 6 worst such recalls ever.  I believe ConAgra subsequently spun off its beef operations.

Although this post would have been eligible, U.S. Food Policy did not enter the ADA / ConAgra raffle as compensation for writing on this topic.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Cargill recalls 36 million pounds of ground turkey

Cargill is recalling 36 million pounds of ground turkey, following an outbreak of Salmonella that is resistant to multiple antibiotics.  The Cargill website says the source is not yet confirmed, but may be a single plant near Springdale, Arkansas.  Tom Philpott writes, "I have trouble visualizing 36 million pounds of dodgy ground turkey."  Me, too. 

On such occasions, I pull out Google Maps to get a sense of what a production facility on this scale looks like. From the search function, I think this may be it thought this might have been it [but see Update 2].

Update: For more detail on diseases that are resistant to antibiotics (including Salmonella), and their possible connection to animal production methods, see the scientific literature review that was briefly posted to the USDA website and then removed.  I learned of this from the Center for a Livable Future.

View Larger Map

View Larger Map

Update 2: My uncle writes from North Carolina to say these images look like a feed plant that supplies the farms. He suggests the following address as a more likely processing plant. I am not sure whether to look on the north or south side of the road, and hope a reader can clarify.

View Larger Map

The cost of nutrients

Pablo Monsivais, Anju Aggarwal, and Adam Drewnowski have a fascinating new study out today in the journal Health Affairs.  Using data from surveys in Seattle, it found that diets were more expensive for people who consumed higher amounts of certain nutrients, such as potassium, and lower amounts of other food components, such as saturated fat.
Our findings highlight a stark economic dimension to observed imbalances in diet. Based on the diets reported by a representative sample of King County, Washington, residents, our analyses indicate that people attempting to bring their diet closer to recommended consumption levels for the nutrients we studied would probably have to pay higher food costs.
The nutrients themselves are not expensive.  In a 2009 study of diet models using the framework of USDA's Thrifty Food Plan, Joseph Llobrera and I explored different types of economic and nutritional constraints that one could try to meet. While choosing diets that are as similar as possible to current consumption patterns, it is fairly inexpensive to meet just nutrient constraints (like getting enough calcium and sufficiently low saturated fat).  It is a bit more expensive to meet Pyramid food group constraints (like getting enough fruit).  And it is more expensive still to meet idiosyncratic food-specific constraints (like getting enough of particular red meats).

The Health Affairs article is getting nationwide coverage today from the Associated Press, under the headline: "Healthy Eating is Privilege of the Rich, Study Finds." I am quoted for opposition to the main thesis.  Journalists do this in part because of the intrinsic value of multiple points of view, and also for narrative tension, quoting one scholar against another.  It is more fruitful to see this as an ongoing conversation in a community of researchers, trying to identify the economic and non-economic sources of unhealthy eating patterns, and reading each other's work with great interest and appreciation.

Addendum: Still mulling over this discussion, a good way to think quantitatively about these questions is to fiddle with our Thrifty Food Plan Calculator, on the Friedman School website.  For example, the tab titled "good sources of..." has a list of the food groups that provide the most potassium per dollar, the most fiber per dollar, and the least saturated fat per dollar.  These are the nutrients that featured most prominently in the Health Affairs article.  Enjoy exploring.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The Ration: food and health reporting from UC Berkeley

The Ration, a new video-centered online magazine from the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, has a terrific early set of features.  I really enjoyed the thought-provoking brief documentary about an earlier generation of food idealists and their communal farm in Tennessee.

The Farm from News21 Berkeley 2011 on Vimeo.

Feeding 9 billion

H. Charles J. Godfray and colleagues in the UK contributed a fine summary of the global food challenge to a special issue of Science last year. It strikes the right tone of concern falling short of panic.  It does well in selecting the most important literature to summarize.  It avoids partisanship in the well-drawn battle-lines over productivity-oriented solutions such as GMOs and conservation-oriented solutions such as low-meat diets.  The authors are happy to explain both approaches in a sensible way.  And yet the recommendations are substantial, not wishy-washy.  Here is the abstract.
Continuing population and consumption growth will mean that the global demand for food will increase for at least another 40 years. Growing competition for land, water, and energy, in addition to the overexploitation of fisheries, will affect our ability to produce food, as will the urgent requirement to reduce the impact of the food system on the environment. The effects of climate change are a further threat. But the world can produce more food and can ensure that it is used more efficiently and equitably. A multifaceted and linked global strategy is needed to ensure sustainable and equitable food security, different components of which are explored here.