Fit to Eat: News from the Food World

ColumnThe Meat Eaters’ Guide to Climate Change, score one for the chickens, GM food labeling, and an unlikely prison hunger strike.

Once a month, The Green Plate harvests the most interesting, biggest, weirdest, and puzzling recent news stories on food politics, the food industry, eating trends, and edible discoveries from around the web, and shares them with you. This month, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) wants you to eat less meat for both the planet and your health. Learn about their just released Meat Eaters’ Guide to Climate Change.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) announced they are working with industry group United Egg Producers to ask Congress to legislate laying hen practices nationwide. What do they propose?

The U.S. recently dropped its opposition to labeling GM foods. What does it mean? And the prison hunger strike that started at California’s Pelican Bay Prison shows no signs of abating. What do prisoners really eat?

Eat less meat but don’t forget to lobby your elected representatives

The Environmental Working Group did lifecycle assessments of 20 types of meat, fish, diary, and vegetable proteins to assess the foods’ greenhouse gas emissions. They used the assesments combined with information from health studies, to create a snappy, consumer-friendly Meat Eaters Guide to Climate Change. The guide is filled with usable information on the environmental and health impacts of eating meat—including charts, graphs, and eye-opening statistics like this one: “If your four-person family skips steak once a week, it’s like taking your car off the road for 3 months.”

This is one of the most comprehensive and useful consumer eating guides that I’ve seen. It’s colorful, engaging, and easy to understand, but it doesn’t oversimplify or dumb down the information. It acknowledges that not all meat production is the same (pasture based operations are better for both human and animal health and the planet), while making the point that they measured the lifecycle of meats from factory farms because that’s what most Americans eat. The guide is also clear on the fact that individual dietary choices can only go so far, recommending that consumers take action to convince elected officials to enact more climate friendly energy policies.

Chickens come first

After California passed Prop 2, which regulated the size of cages for egg laying hens, it looked as if more wide-reaching efforts were going to have to be enacted state by state. With the involvement of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a similar measure was passed in Michigan. Measures were being considered in both Oregon and Washington until a surprising agreement was announced between HSUS and the industry group, United Egg Producers, to join together to ask Congress to pass Federal legislation regulating the practices for egg laying hens. The proposed legislation would require conventional cages to be replaced with new, enriched housing systems; mandate labeling on all egg cartons nationwide to inform consumers of the method used to produce the eggs, such as “eggs from caged hens,” “eggs from hens in enriched cages,” “eggs from cage-free hens,” and “eggs from free-range hens”; prohibit a number of practices that are used to artificially extend laying cycles; and prohibit the sale of eggs and egg products nationwide that don’t meet these requirements. This agreement indicates that society is shifting toward caring more about how farm animals are treated and, because of this, the industry is willing to give a little to avoid fighting regulations state-by-state, and create a level playing field for all producers. I see this as a win for both farm animals and information-seeking consumers, though not all agree. Some say the “enrichments” don’t go far enough.

Two steps forward on GM food

In a dramatic turnaround, the U.S. delegation to the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the world body made up of various food safety regulatory agencies that regulates global food trade, dropped its opposition to labeling GM Foods. This means that any country wishing to adopt GM food labeling will no longer face the threat of a legal challenge from the World Trade Organization (WTO), and consumers (who overwhelmingly support labeling) will have the information they need to make purchasing decisions. In other GM food news, members of the Senate sent a letter to the FDA late last week stating that they’re moving forward with legislation to prohibit the FDA from spending funds to approve the highly controversial GM salmon. The house passed a similar amendment last month. The Senate stated in the letter that, “Given the strong and growing Congressional opposition to the approval of GE fish in both chambers, spending time on further review of genetically engineered fish would be a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Prison hunger strike continues 

A hunger strike that began July 1st at California’s Pelican Bay Prison – and had spread to 12 other prisons and at times included 6,600 prisoners – continues and is even garnering support outside the prison system. Prisoners are protesting a variety of issues including medical care, confinement practices, and lack of proper nutrition. What do prisoners eat in the United States? This widely circulated Good Magazine Infographic compares prison food with school food and, in this article,  a Chicago Magazine food reviewer tries Nutraloaf, a substance used in prison, not for food, but for punishment, and finds it so “intrinsically disagreeable” that his “throat nearly closed up reflexively.” Sounds cruel and unusual to me. In fact, some states have banned the loaf and many prisoners have sued over it.

Image: Animal Freedom via Flickr

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.