Posts Tagged ‘food labels’

Food read round-up: GM alfalfa, endangered bees and misleading food claims

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Butterfly gathering pollen from flowering alfalfa
Photo: C. Wainwright, via Flickr


Genetically modified (GM) seeds, the wholesale use of herbicides and pesticides, deceptive product marketing and labeling: however you look at it, the industrial system that supplies much of the world’s food doesn’t  inspire confidence.

What can consumers do? Support local food producers. Push for more effective regulation. Above all, keep asking questions about how food is produced, and hold food companies, retailers and politicians to account.

Farmers seek environmental assessment of GM alfalfa from Ontario government:  The Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) approved genetically modified (GM) alfalfa back in 2005, but it wasn’t legal to grow it until recently.  In April 2013, federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz allowed registration of one variety of GM alfalfa, leaving the door open for biotech companies to put their seeds on the market.  Forage Genetics International is already pushing to introduce the seeds in Eastern Canada.

Many farmers and other groups oppose GM seeds, citing risks such as contamination of non-GM crops and the loss of exports to markets (EU, Japan) where GM crops are not accepted. Given the federal government’s stance, two Ontario farmers have asked the provincial government to conduct an environmental assessment of the seed before it’s sold here.  They made the request under the under Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights, which allows residents to request an assessment if they believe a new commercial activity could have a negative effect on the environment and economy.  It’s the first GM-related request made under the bill and was prepared by individuals and groups concerned about the risks of GM alfalfa, with supporting evidence from the Organic Agriculture Protection Fund, the National Farmers Union and the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN).

The request argues that the GM crop would irreversibly contaminate the environment, promote herbicide-resistant weeds, encourage more herbicide use, and hurt farms, farmers and the food supply. A widely planted perennial, alfalfa flowers several times each season and is pollinated by a variety of insects, significantly raising the risk of contamination from GM varieties.

Ontario forms new working group to support bee health: As reports of declining bee populations continue to make headlines, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has announced that her government would form a working group to study bee health. Made up of beekeepers, farmers, representatives of food agribusiness, scientists and government officials, the group is to develop and release a plan to protect the bees by spring 2014.

As I wrote in an earlier post, the EU has banned several insect nerve agents known as neonicotinoids,  which have been linked to the decline in bees and other pollinators. Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency is re-evaluating neonicotinoid use but won’t issue a report until 2018. Given the urgency of the problem, Premier Wynne has asked the report date be advanced “significantly.”

Labels often hide food fraud: Despite the trend toward a more farm-to-fork transparency, it’s almost impossible to control the amount of food fraud that goes on every day, writes Clare Fischer Guajira in Food Fraud: Labels on What We Eat Often Mislead. Whether it’s done to persuade consumers to buy, or to increase the producer’s bottom line, food adulteration – passing food off as higher quality than it is – occurs on a global scale.  (Think last year’s horsemeat scandal in Europe, the arrests earlier this year of Chinese traders selling rat meat as lamb, and a U.S. report stating that one-third of the fish sampled in a national survey was mislabeled.) Given limited resources and a complex global food system, more stringent regulation will only do so. In the meantime, experts advise consumers to ask lots of questions, buy from reputable sources and be suspicious of rock-bottom prices; if retailers can’t give you satisfactory answers, go elsewhere.

How food companies use nutritionism to sell more products: We’ve seen them on grocery shelves: heart-healthy chocolate chip muffins, probiotic ice cream, and water with added vitamins. Known as functional foods – they’ve been engineered to offer what their manufacturers claim are health benefits.  The functional food trend is rooted in an approach called nutritionism, described by food policy expert Marion Nestle in as reducing “the value of a food…to its single functional ingredient. This logic…fails to consider the complexity of food composition and the interactions amongst food components.”  In other words, vitamins added to a bottle of sweetened water aren’t going to give you the same benefit as consuming them as part of whole, unprocessed food.

In “That’s not natural or organic: How Big Food misleads,” author Gyorgy Scrinis digs into the way Big Food uses nutritionism to sell products and how product labeling helps or hinders consumers in making informed food choices. Scrinis argues that not only have food corporations become the main promoters of nutritionism, but, since the 1980s, they have come to control the nutritional agenda, pouring millions of dollars into political lobbying and directly funding scientific studies on specific foods and nutrients.  In addition, by engineering back into food the nutrients that processing removed in the first place, the industry sidesteps questions about the fundamental quality and value of its products.

What food stories have you been reading lately?

The Food Read Round-up: What are we really eating?

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

The Food Read Round-up curates media stories about food and farming in Ottawa, across Canada, and around the world.

If there’s a theme to the food news of the past few weeks, it’s that what you see is not what you get when it comes to processed food.

In Canada, it turns out that the nutrition labels we count on to make informed food choices are based on information that’s decades out of date. In Europe, more products advertised as beef have been found to contain horsemeat, pork, and other undeclared meats. In the U.S., former officials of the Peanut Corporation of America were charged with 76 counts of fraud and conspiracy for their role in the 2009 Salmonella peanut butter outbreak. To cap it off, two new food industry exposés hit the market: Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal by food safety journalist Melanie Warner, and Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us  by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Michael Moss.

While there are no easy fixes for an industrial food system that’s spiraling out of control, there are two things we can do as consumers. One is to eat fewer processed products and more real, whole foods. The other is to support a shorter, more transparent food supply chain by buying from local producers whenever possible.

Take food labels with a grain of salt.  Dietician and cookbook author Rosie Schwartz took aim at the accuracy of Canadian nutrition labels in February 22 op-ed piece in The Ottawa Citizen. When Canadians read food labels, Schwartz wrote, most of us don’t know that the information on daily recommended values, or % DV, is 30 years old and seriously out-of-step with recommendations Canada and the U.S. developed in the mid-2000s based on age, sex, and life stage.

Here’s just one example of how the outdated information gap affects consumers. Although the current recommendation for sodium is 1,500 mg per day, the figures on food labels are based on the old recommended limit of 2,400 milligrams per day. So if you eat two cups of soup with 650 mg of sodium in each, you may think you’re slightly over half of your daily sodium quota but in fact you’re close to the maximum of 1,500 mg.

Health Canada is looking to update its nutrition figures, a process that will take two to three years. But that hasn’t stopped them from launching a Nutrition Facts Education Campaign based on the old figures.  If – as the department claims – it wants to educate Canadians about the Nutrition Facts table and % DV, why not use the latest information? As Rosie Schwartz says: “Congratulations Health Canada.”

“Sh*t, Just Ship it”: Felony Prosecution for Salmonella-Peanut Executives.  In 2009, peanuts contaminated with Salmonella sickened 714 people in 46 U.S. states; one quarter of them were hospitalized and nine died. On February 24, 2013, former executives of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) were charged with 76 counts of fraud and conspiracy for knowingly distributing the contaminated nuts. Prosecution doesn’t happen in many cases of foodborne-illness. Why here? Part of the reason, says food safety journalist Maryn McKenna, is that the behaviour of PCA’s officials was so flagrant. In addition to being negligent, they were responsible for deliberate deception, including falsifying origin labeling and lab results. According to the indictment, PCA president Stewart Parnell instructed an employee who warned that a product would be delayed until the results of Salmonella testing were available: “Sh*t, just ship it. I cannot afford to loose (sic) another customer.”

Horsemeat Scandal. The scandal that erupted January 15 shows no sign of fading, with horsemeat having now been found in beef and beef products in at least 14 European Union (EU) countries. Brands such as Ikea (their signature Swedish meatballs), Burger King, Nestle, Bird’s Eye, and many others have been affected. Criminal activity is believed to be behind the fraud, with the perpetrators taking advantage of global food’s long, complex supply chains that make it difficult to trace ingredients to their source. This infographic published in Food Safety News, shows the scandal at a glance.

Big Food exposés. Melanie Warner’s Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal goes behind the scenes in the $1 trillion-a-year industry to learn more about really goes into what we eat and how we’ve developed such an appetite for foods that are cheap, addictive and nutritionally empty.  Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss argues that food company scientists work hard to get people addicted to inexpensive convenience foods; our soaring rates of diabetes and obesity are among the consequences. You can find reviews and discussions with the authors at Huffington Post, NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show, and Democracy Now!, among other sources.

What food and farming stories have you been reading?

Photo: J.P. Goguen, Flickr