In the previous episode, I talked to Phil Howard of Michigan State University about concentration in the food industry. Afterwards, I realised I had been so taken up with what he was telling me that I forgot to ask him one crucial question.
Is there any effect of concentration on public health or food safety?
It seems intuitively obvious that if you have long food chains, dependent on only a few producers, there is the potential for very widespread outbreaks. That is exactly what we are seeing in the current outbreaks of dangerous E. coli on romaine lettuce and Salmonella in eggs. But it is also possible that big industrial food producers both have the capital to invest in food safety and face stiffer penalties when things go wrong.
Are small producers and short food chains better? Marc Bellemare, at the University of Minnesota, has uncovered a strong correlation between some food-borne illnesses and the number of farmers’ markets relative to the population.
Phil thinks one answer is greater decentralization. There’s no good reason why all the winter lettuce and spinach in America should come from a tiny area around Yuma, Arizona. Marc says consumer education would help; we need to handle the food we buy with more attention to keeping it safe. Both solutions will take quite large changes in behaviour, by government and by ordinary people.
Right now, it probably isn’t possible to say with any certainty whether one system is inherently safer than the other. But even asking the question raises some interesting additional questions. If you have answers, or even suggestions, let me know.
Industrial accidents, tragic though they may be, can also lead to change. The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York in 1911 is credited with changing a generation’s attitudes to worker safety, unions and regulation. Eighty years later, another industrial fire also killed workers because, like the Triangle fire, the doors were chained shut from the outside. That fire, at the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, North Carolina, changed almost nothing.
In his new book The Hamlet Fire, historian Bryant Simon uses the fire to tell what he calls A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government and Cheap Lives. Simon’s thesis is essentially that the Hamlet fire wasn’t really an accident; circumstances conspired to make it likely, and if it hadn’t happened in Hamlet, it would have happened somewhere else. Among the points he makes: at the time of the fire North Carolina, a state that my imagination sees as resolutely rural, was the most industrialised of the United States. It had become so essentially by gutting control, regulation and inspection in order to attract jobs.
The USDA, responsible for the safety of the food people eat, agreed that a good way to keep out flies would be to lock the doors of the plant. But the North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Administration had never once inspected the plant.
There’s a whole lot of Bryant Simon’s analysis that just wouldn’t fit comfortably in the episode. One nugget I really want to share here is a brief little scene from the first season of The Wire.
In a minute and a half, David Simon’s characters offer an object lesson in poultry economics, which Bryant Simon uses to explore the real history of the chicken nugget. And the dipping sauces are the key to overcoming chicken fatigue. Genius.
We need some better regulations to prevent this type of race to the bottom… Companies that are found in violation of things like this should be forced to pay a multiple of the cost of having supported the potential regulations upfront in addition to major fines for the loss of life. Too many companies are free-riding on the fact that they’re not paying the cost for externalities which affect their workers, their environment, and their communities.
ReadDes faits by Herve This (hervethis.blogspot.com)
Il se dit beaucoup de choses à propos de la gastronomie moléculaire et de la cuisine moléculaire, il se publie beaucoup de choses à propos des rapports entre la science et la cuisine, et je vois une immense confusion.
French scientist and molecular gastronomist Herve This bemoans the state of molecular gastronomy and provides some early recollections of his experience in the field.
One week jam, the next global hunger and malnutrition. That’s the joy of Eat This Podcast; I get to present what interests me, in the hope that it interests you too. It also means I sometimes get to talk to my friends about how they see the big picture around food. Dr Jessica Fanzo, Assistant Professor of Nutrition at Columbia University’s Insitute of Human Nutrition, Special Advisor on Nutrition Policy at the Earth Institute’s Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development, also at Columbia, and much else besides, is one such friend. She was in Rome recently for a preparatory meeting for a big UN conference on nutrition next year, so I took the opportunity to catch up, and to ask some very basic questions about global hunger.
I confess, I have very little time for the global talk shops that meet so that, somehow, magically, the poor can eat. And having attended a few, there does seem to be a dearth of people who have studied malnutrition and hunger first hand, and made a difference. Jess Fanzo has been promoting the idea of nutrition-sensitive agriculture as a way to make a difference locally, while recognizing that there can be no simple, global solutions. You have to see what works in one place, and then adapt it to your own circumstances. There are no simple global solutions. The primary point – that governments have some responsibility for ensuring that their citizens at least have the opportunity to be well-nourished – seems often to be lost in the din of governments talking about other things. And interfering busybodies declaring war on hunger don’t seem to have much luck either. I don’t have any solutions.
She’s written about her fieldwork and how it informs her global view. (And, as an aside, how come big-shot bloggers don’t care about spam? Come on, people. Your negligence makes life worse for everybody.)
McDonald’s used to make the best fast food french fries in the world — until they changed their recipe in 1990. Revisionist History travels to the top food R&D lab in the country to discover what was lost, and why for the past generation we’ve been eating french fries that taste like cardboard.
I love the double entendre “broke my heart”! This does make me curious to try making my own beef tallow french fries.
Many certification schemes are blocking true sustainability by watering down standards in order to get stakeholders on board and even providing 'green cover' for firms that are destroying the environment, according to a report.
I’ve always suspected things in this area weren’t great, but I didn’t know it was likely this horrific.
Bowdoin College in Maine and Vassar College in upstate New York are roughly the same size. They compete for the same students. Both have long traditions of academic excellence. But one of those schools is trying hard to close the gap between rich and poor in American society—and paying a high price for its effort. The other is making that problem worse—and reaping rewards as a result.
“Food Fight,” the second of the three-part Revisionist History miniseries on opening up college to poor kids, focuses on a seemingly unlikely target: how the food each school serves in its cafeteria can improve or distort the educational system.
It would be nice to figure out a way to nudge some capitalistic tendencies into this system to help fix it–but what?
Bourdain digs deep into the proud, often misunderstood culture of West Virginia, as he traverses a 5,000 foot mine, observes the demolition derby-like sport of rock-bouncing and dines on signature Appalachian dishes.
There’s some interesting simple honesty to this show. Reminds me a bit of a more serious and food centric version of what W. Kamau Bell is doing with his show on CNN.
Traditional paddy rice farmers had to share labor and coordinate irrigation in a way that most wheat farmers did not. We observed people in everyday life to test whether these agricultural legacies gave rice-farming southern China a more interdependent culture and wheat-farming northern China a more independent culture. In Study 1, we counted 8964 people sitting in cafes in six cities and found that people in northern China were more likely to be sitting alone. In Study 2, we moved chairs together in Starbucks across the country so that they were partially blocking the aisle ( n = 678). People in northern China were more likely to move the chair out of the way, which is consistent with findings that people in individualistic cultures are more likely to try to control the environment. People in southern China were more likely to adjust the self to the environment by squeezing through the chairs. Even in China’s most modern cities, rice-wheat differences live on in everyday life.
Follow the flavor as Martha puts her spin on the stews of the Arabian Gulf. Each dish is layered with stick-to-your-bones satisfaction. Arabian Gulf potpie, braised lamb shanks with okra, curried swordfish stew and red lentil vegetable stew… these slow cooked treasures offer nourishing comfort with ease.
I find Martha Stewart a bit on the droll side. Here she essentially makes a chicken pot pie and calls it Arabian Gulf cuisine?! Anthony Bourdain she is not. Even worse, she takes a taste of the stew for seasoning and then drips the remnants into the dish before using the same spoon to continue stirring. Yes, you read that right. She double dipped her spoon! Alas…
Research has shown that wealthier, urbanised regions tend to harbour more individualistic personalities, while poorer, agrarian areas have more collectivist, community-minded ones. But why? A study from the University of Chicago published this week suggests such differences could be down to a region’s predominant crops—an insight gleaned, improbably, from observing nearly 9,000 customers in Chinese cafes. People in China’s south farm rice, which requires a whole village’s co-operation on irrigation; in the north, they grow wheat, far less demanding of collective effort. The researchers’ first observation was that latte-lovers in wheat-growing regions were far more likely to be alone. Then the team surreptitiously blocked thoroughfares with chairs. Among northerners, 16% shifted the chairs (individualism is marked by actively modifying one’s environment), while only 6% from the rice-cultivating south did so (collectivists tend to work with what they’ve got). It’s an intriguing sociological suggestion, perhaps to be filed under “you are what you eat”.
Randomly ran across this over the weekend and seems like the kind of cultural/food-related study that Jeremy Cherfas would enjoy.
References this study: Moving chairs in Starbucks.1
Talhelm T, Zhang X, Oishi S. Moving chairs in Starbucks: Observational studies find rice-wheat cultural differences in daily life in China. Science Advances. http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/4/eaap8469. Published April 25, 2018. Accessed April 28, 2018.