Food News: Organics, BPA, Foie Gras, Safety

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Organic Economic Indicators

Looking for tangible signs that the recession is loosening its grip? Last week, major organic food producers, wholesalers, and retailers—who had taken hits during the meltdown as consumers lost their appetites for pricey fare—announced heartening financial news.

A rundown:

    • United Natural Foods, Inc., a wholesaler of natural and organic foods, saw its share price hit its highest level in more than three years.

    • Whole Foods Market, Inc. reported that its earnings were the best "in several years" as sales for the quarter came in at more than twice what they were during the same period last year. Its stock is trading at nearly five times the 2008 low.

    • Horizon, the country's largest organic milk producer, announced that sales returned to positive growth in the first three months of this year.

    • Shares of Hain Celestial Group hit their highest levels since late 2008 as financier Carl Icahn boosted his ownership in the firm because he felt that it was undervalued.

Forbes magazine recently put Icahn's worth at a cool $10.5 billion. Organic naysayers take note: he's done quite for himself by putting his money where his mouth is.

BPA and the Beanstalk A growing body of research had linked bisphenol A (BPA) to harmful effects in humans and animals that are exposed to the plastic, which is used in baby bottles, plastic containers, and as a liner for food and beverage cans. BPA has been associated with reproductive damage, early onset of puberty, neurological harm, changes in brain development, and male sexual dysfunction.

But what does the chemical do to plants? An undergraduate at Dixie State College of Utah hypothesized the stuff would kill them. To test his theory, Jareau Cordell fertilized green beans and mustard greens with water that had been heated in a microwave in a baby bottle he'd picked up in a dollar-store. Instead of withering and flopping over, the plants thrived, growing bigger and broader, and producing more impressive root systems.

"These results are completely unexpected," Cordell's professor, David Jones, told Tiffany De Masters, a reporter for The Spectrum, a local newspaper. Analysis showed that the plants were absorbing the BPA and concentrating it in their tissue.

But before you repeat the experiment on your own patio tomatoes, heed the professor's words: "I don't think this is a positive thing. I think it's a dangerous thing."

Cordell, who is off to do a fellowship at Johns Hopkins medical school, shared his findings with the Food and Drug Administration, which, in an about face from previous approval of BPA, announced earlier this year that it is pursuing additional studies into the chemical's safety.

Foie Gras Pollution

Folks can debate whether or not foie gras production is cruel to the ducks that are fed massive amounts of grain to enlarge their livers to unnatural proportions, but in at least one production facility there seems to be little argument that it is bad for the environment.

Earlier this month, a Manhattan judge issued an injunction against Hudson Valley Foie Gras in Ferndale, N.Y., the country's biggest foie gras raiser, ordering it to stop discharging waste into the Middle Mongaup River, a tributary of the Delaware River.

"This facility has flouted federal pollution laws for years, and we are delighted to see justice done for the environment, animals and local residents who have all suffered at the hands of this factory farm," said Jonathan R. Lovvorn, vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation at The Humane Society of the United States, which filed the suit.

A Gaping Hole in the Food Safety Net

Legislation currently in the Senate aims to tighten regulations and inspection of American food producers and growers--much to the chagrin of small and organic farmers, who worry about the expense of unnecessary rules and burdensome inspections.

But a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggests that the Food and Drug Administration might be better off diverting some resources to regulate foreign producers of the food we eat (click here for a PDF). There are about 190,000 registered foreign facilities that produce food for export to the United States. Of those, only 200 (roughly one out of every 1,000) were inspected by the FDA.

A little melamine, anyone?

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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