The Green Plate: News From the Food World

ColumnNews worth eating.

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.

Read on and learn about McDonald’s latest foray into “sustainable seafood,” revel in Ruth Bourdain’s continued good-natured dogging of Ruth Reichl, puzzle over how organic sprouts could be the source of E-coli when it’s animal excrement that causes that causes the deadly disease, understand how fracking may affect our food supply, and find out what the rest of the world spends on food.

MSC: (McDonalds Standard Crap?)

Last week, McDonald’s used World Oceans Day to announce that, starting in October, it would be sourcing the flaky white flesh used in the Filet-o-Fish sandwiches served in the company’s European restaurants from New Zealand’s Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) certified Hoki fishery. The problem is that the sustainability of that fishery has been in question for awhile. Catches have diminished to the point that quotas have been cut over the past few years. In addition, many scientists have always had an issue with this certification because New Zealand Hoki is caught by bottom trawling, which damages the ocean floor and results in a heck of a lot of bycatch.

I asked Jackie Church, seafood sustainability guru and founder of Teach a Man to Fish, a series of events aimed at teaching chefs and cooks about sustainable seafood, what she thinks of the MSC label in general and McDonald’s use of it.

“People sometimes vilify the commercialization of the label. I think that’s too simplistic. However, it’s also true that MSC has not done itself any favors by certifying some fisheries that are widely believed in the conservation and scientific communities to be rife with problems. Patagonian toothfish: a pocket of sustainability in waters with some of the most widely acknowledged pirating and little or no monitoring of traceability? This just causes confusion for the consumer who just learned Chilean Sea Bass is to be avoided. New Zealand Hoki is another example due to dips in biomass, and by-catch issues that have remained largely unaddressed.

Simplicity loves a villain, though, and it does no good to say MSC is bad or McDonald’s is bad. What we need is reliable, science-based market labels that help the consumer make better choices AND put pressure on those certifying bodies to monitor that which they’ve certified AND pressure on fisheries managers to share data transparently AND pressure on retailers and restaurateurs to prove traceability AND sustainability. These decisions and labels must be backed by good science. We cannot wish away McDonald’s and if we acknowledge they will continue to exist, better that they are making some steps in the right direction.”

To Gilt or Guilt? That is the question:

The much ballyhooed Gilt Taste launched with stellar content and tasty trappings under the editorial eye of Ruth Reichl. Never one to ignore an opportunity to dog Reichl, the mysterious Ruth Bourdain launched the deliciously spoofy Guilt Taste less than a half a day later. For those not in the know, Ruth Bourdain became an insta-celebrity for creating a brilliant mash up personality of Anthony Bourdain and Ruth Reichl on Twitter.

But wait, I thought E-coli was caused by cow poo?:

Giving both organic farms and vegetarians a bad case of media poisoning, officials in Europe finally succeeded in tracing the deadly European E-coli outbreak to sprouts from an organic farm in Germany. You might be wondering why it’s difficult to find information in the news about how a microbe that lives in the digestive systems of cows can end up on sprouts. This article provides a good explanation. Basically, E. coli outbreaks can start when feces or feces-contaminated water gets on the crops through fertilization or irrigation. The managing director of the now shutdown German farm said that the sprouts on the farm are grown only from seeds and water, and they aren’t fertilized at all, and that there aren’t any animal fertilizers used in other areas on the farm. But, as the article states, E. coli can stick to the seeds and lie dormant for months. To me, this signals that, even though this farm was shut down, those seeds could be anywhere breeding E-coli. And this farm gets an undeservedly bad rap.

What the frack is happening to our food?

Proving that its editorial policy is not just about fancy vittles, the aforementioned Gilt Taste reported on why fracking, which is a process used to drill for natural gas, could be a danger to our food supply. Fracking leaves behind heavily contaminated waste water. Putting aside for a moment the issue of the water itself, when animals consume it, it enters our food chain. This article in High Country News tells how a few Western states are enacting legislation to require companies to disclose the chemicals used in fracking. I suppose that’s a start.

How much of your income do you spend on food?

Crazy weather across the world, high oil prices, and greater demand mean food prices are on the rise again. Dramatically. Consider this: while we may be able to soften the blow on our wallets by reducing waste and shopping smarter, the world’s poor don’t have much leeway. According to Oxfam, in some areas of the world, poor people spend up to 80% of their incomes on food, while we spend less than 10%. This map, developed by UC Berkeley Journalism Grad Students, shows worldwide food spending as a percentage of income. Chilling statistics.

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.

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Vanessa Barrington

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