Tom Philpott

Like a Virgin, but Not Quite: Olive Oil's Dirty Secret

| Sat Dec. 10, 2011 7:00 AM EST

The bottle of "extra virgin" olive oil on your kitchen shelf? It's probably not extra virgin, defined as cold-pressed and otherwise unrefined. And it might not even be 100 percent olive oil.

That's the conclusion of Tom Mueller's new book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. Mueller first took on the subject in his 2008 New Yorker article, "Slippery Business," painting the European olive oil business as a shadowy underworld populated by crooks, liars, and hucksters—some of them occupying corner offices at transnational food firms. One EU investigator tells him that dealing counterfeit olive oil brings "profits comparable to cocaine," with "none of the risks." 

Berkeleyside blog sums up Mueller's findings:

Since neither the FDA nor the Italian equivalent really regulate the market, unscrupulous producers have developed numerous ways to adulterate extra virgin olive oil, according to Mueller. They cut olive oil with hazelnut or sunflower oil. They take musty oil made from rotting olives, deodorize it to remove the bad smell, and then add a bit of extra virgin oil to make it smell authentic. Then they slap fancy labels on glass bottles and sell it as extra virgin olive oil.

Berkeleyside points to a recent University of California-Davis study that adds weight to Mueller's claims. Researchers found that 69 percent of imported extra virgin olive oils sampled from California supermarkets failed to meet requirements to merit that label. Interestingly, 90 percent of the California-produced samples did. I guess the California olive oil industry is too young and immature to realize the benefits of fraud; the Europeans have been adulterating olive oil since Roman times, Mueller reports. 

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Is Your Fleece Killing the Ocean?

| Fri Dec. 9, 2011 3:46 PM EST
Cozy, but maybe not so great for the ocean.

In its 2008 heyday, the blog Stuff White People Like took aim at the ubiquity of "outdoor performance clothes"—people's penchant for marching down city streets and suburban strip malls dressed as if they were slogging the Appalachian Trail.

It turns out, our devotion to outdoor wear might be more than just a crime against fashion. It might also be a crime against the outdoors itself—or at least, that vast swath of it that's covered by ocean.

Over on Grist, Clare Leschin-Hoar brings the bad news. She points to a recent study showing that "nearly 2,000 polyester fibers can shake loose from a single piece of clothing in the wash and, unfortunately, those tiny plastic bits are making their way into the ocean."

Just how prevalent are they? In a recent Science study, researchers took sand from 18 beaches over six continents, Clare Leschin-Hoar reports. The results?

Every beach tested contained microplastics (particles about the size of a piece of long grain of rice or smaller). Of the samples collected, nearly 80 percent were polyester or acrylic, though without further research, it's impossible to know exactly which type of clothing—whether it's your stretchy yoga pants or that super-soft fleece blanket—is causing the most problems.

Worse still, "polyester is heavier than water," Leschin-Hoar reports; so it sinks to the ocean bottom, an area that teems with little creatures that gobble everything in sight before eaten by bigger creatures—and the "microplastics" then bioaccumulate up the food chain, quite possibly to your plate.

Is the FDA Finally Going to Get BPA out of Can Linings?

| Thu Dec. 8, 2011 8:28 PM EST

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a synthetic chemical that mimics estrogen. Even in tiny doses it has been linked to cancer, reproductive trouble, and irregular brain development in kids.

It's really the sort of thing you want to keep well clear of your food. Unhappily, in addition to being vile stuff for humans, it also has properties that make it quite attractive for manufactures of food packaging. As Mother Jones has noted before ("Waiter, There's BPA in My Soup"), it's in the lining of virtually every can in the supermarket, from baby food to beer to Coca-Cola to chicken soup. Even some organic brands use it in their canned tomatoes.

And yes, it moves from those cans into our bodies (see here,  here and here). 

The FDA—the agency charged with overseeing the safety of the food supply—for years bucked a growing weight of scientific evidence and declared it safe. Then, in January 2010, the agency shifted course, declaring it had "some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children." In a report released in May of this year, FDA scientists tested "commonly consumed" canned foods from supermarket shelves, just to make sure BPA was really leeching from the can linings into the food (as ample previous reseaerch had already confirmed). The results: 71 of 78 samples had "detectable" levels.

All the while, the agency has avoided making a decision on the question of whether or not to ban the chemical, and millions of Americans continue to be exposed to it daily. Why the delay? Given the weight of evidence indicting BPA, I can only conclude that the chemical-industry lobby, rallying to protect a lucrative market, has convinced the agency to sit on its hands.

This week, hounded by a lawsuit from the Natural Resource Defense Council, the FDA has announced it will make a final decision on BPA by March 31, 2012. I wish we could expect the Obama administration to take the side of science and public health here. But given what we know about industry influence over regulatory decisions in this administration⇀and after seeing what happened with the FDA's decision over the "morning-after pill"⇀the chemical industry may well have this one in the can, along with its BPA. 

Monsanto (Still) Denies Superinsect Problem, Despite Evidence

| Thu Dec. 8, 2011 8:00 AM EST
A corn rootworm: You call it Smartstax, I call it breakfast.

Back in August—as I reported here—something strange began to happen in isolated Iowa corn fields: Otherwise healthy corn plants were falling over, their roots devastated by a ravenous insect called the corn rootworm.

The weird part wasn't pest outbreaks in vast corn fields; farmers know that when you plant a huge amount of land with a single crop, you're also providing a friendly habitat for insects that like to eat that crop. The odd part was that the fields were planted with seed engineered by Monsanto precisely to kill the corn rootworm. Monsanto's product—known as Bt corn—had failed; rootworms were developing resistance to it.

At the time, the EPA—which is responsible for registering pesticide-containing crops like Monsanto's—maintained an icy silence on the matter. But last week, the agency released a report (PDF) that, in calm bureaucratese, rebuked Monsanto for its "inadequate" system for monitoring. It's one of those delectable reports written not by political appointees or higher-ups, but rather by staff scientists reporting what they see. The document offers a fascinating glimpse into the way the agency conducts business with Monsanto.

The report confirmed that resistant rootworms had risen up in four states (Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, and Nebraska) and suspected in three others (Colorado, South Dakota, and Wisconsin). Now, everyone—Monsanto, the EPA, ag scientists—have known all along that resistance was a danger with Monsanto's rootworm-targeting Bt corn. To avoid resistance, the EPA decreed back in 2003 that farmers using the product had to plant a "refuge" crop of non-Bt corn alongside their Bt corn, so that rootworms that had developed Bt resistance would mate with peers that had not been exposed to it, diluting the resistant trait and keeping it under control.

The question was, how large a refuge? Monsanto, hot to move as much product as possible, wanted to keep it small. In this post from early September, I laid out the whole tangled history of how back in 2003, Monsanto strong-armed the EPA into accepting a 20 percent refuge requirement, even after an independent scientific panel convened by the agency had recommended a 50 percent buffer. In a Nature article from the time, available here, scientists involved in the panel express rage at the EPA's cave-in.

With this document, the agency is tacitly acknowledging that its independent advisory panel was right, and Monsanto was wrong. What happens now? The Center for Food Safety's Bill Freese points to research from University of Illinois crop scientist Michael Gray suggesting that in some Illinois farm counties, 40 percent of farmers lack access to high-quality non-Bt corn seed. That same problem likely affects farmers throughout the corn belt. Just as farmers have responded to the collapse of Monsanto's Roundup Ready weed-killing technology by dousing their fields with "herbicide cocktails," we'll likely see farmers respond to superinsects with increased doses of toxic insecticides. Beyond that, here are the two takeaways of the EPA's recent bombshell.

More on the Ethical Restaurant Guide

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 8:00 AM EST

When I was in high school in Texas in the early 1980s continuing into my college years, I worked first as a busboy/dishwasher, then grill cook, at a classic steakhouse. You know the kind: low lighting, lots of red everywhere. Indeed, busboys wore red jackets, white shirts, and black bowties; cooks had to adorn their white uniforms with an annoying red scarf.

The place was part of a small Texas chain that had begun in the '30s. When I started in 1980, employees with more than six months of seniority were automatically enrolled in a profit-sharing plan. After a year, you got a decent health-insurance policy. The company even ran a credit union that paid decent interest on savings and financed cars and homes for employees. People who worked hard and excelled got steady raises. For long-time cooks, work there charted a path to the middle class.

But at a certain point, the founding owner died and his stepchildren took over. Simultaneously, the Reagan '80s came into full flower. Slowly, all of those perks disappeared. Wages froze for current employees, and dropped for new ones. Older, high-paid cooks were given the option to accept wage cuts or be fired. Long-time employees began to struggle to maintain their lifestyles.

I was a college-bound kid earning cash on the side, so the changes didn't affect me much personally. But it was an embittering experience to see people who had become like family to me be treated like dirt. In the end, the draconian changes didn't do much for the company's bottom line—it has long since collapsed, and exists now only in rump form.

My Favorite Cookbooks of 2011

| Sat Dec. 3, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Part of me swore off cookbooks years ago. I used to dive into them, creating feasts that started with huge shopping lists and ended in towers of dirty dishes. No regrets—it was a great way to learn to cook and get some tangible, edible education about the culture of faraway lands.

I actually still love that sort of thing. But I don't have time for it anymore; my cooking has become streamlined and simple, driven not by some vision of, say, authentic Moroccan cuisine, but rather by what's coming off the farm, what basics—grains, beans, oils, spices, etc.—are in the pantry, and what meat I can get from neighboring farmers for the occasional splurge.

If I have largely turned away from cookbooks, though, they have not done me the same favor. One of the perks of writing about a topic is receiving via mail a steady stream of "review copies" of books on the subject. One kind of food book is the cookbook—and once a month or so, unsolicited new ones arrive, usually hotly promoting some aspect of "green" or "sustainable" cooking. I confess that until recently, most of those books, worthy as they are, bored me. I don't need to "green my kitchen," or be harangued to buy local and eat lower on the food chain.

But this year, I started receiving what I consider a new genre of cookbooks, put out by inspired writer-cooks whose lives are deeply embedded in their own foodsheds—a condition they take as a given, without hitting you over the head with it—and who share my fixation on simple, seasonal, high-flavor cooking. I learned they can can teach me new tricks without wrecking the kitchen or sending me scurrying to the grocery store for special ingredients. For the first time in years, I found myself digging into cookbooks for ideas and inspiration—and falling in love with them all over again.

In addition to being highly practical and in tune with the way I cook now, these new-wave cookbooks are all lovingly put-together artifacts—things you want to hold, pore over, and return to, in a way that no website or app can simulate. Here, in no particular order, are the cookbooks that have won me over this year, in spite of myself.

River Cottage Everyday
By Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall

Fearnley-Whitingstall, who runs the runs River Cottage farm/restaurant in the UK, made his authorial rep with a celebrated tome on meat (which I confess I've never cracked). In this one, vegetables take center plate, giving meat just a single (okay, quite brilliant) chapter. As suggested by the title, what Fearnley-Whitingstall is doing here is laying out a blueprint for fitting home cooking into a busy life. So we get chapters like "Making breakfast," "Weekday lunch (box)," and "Thrifty meat." Thrift, indeed, is a theme running throughout—for a superb fish soup, for example, he has you "buy an inexpensive fresh fish, get the fishmonger to fillet it for you, and use the head, fish, and bones to make a flavorful stock."

But the mood is whimsical, not earnest, brightened by the delightful photography of Simon Wheeler and Fearnley-Whitingstall's droll prose. And every recipe I've tried—from "Roast carrots with butter, cumin, and orange" to "Easy rich chocolate cake"—has been both dead simple and a winner. It is, in short, the most charming and irresistible cookbook I've come across in ages.

Killer dish: "Beet and walnut hummus" (my favorite discovery of 2011)
Dish I'm dying to try: "Neck of lamb with lemon and barley"

Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch
By Nigel Slater

Here we have another charming and useful book by a British writer, this one from the veteran Observer food columnist Nigel Slater. Slater's shtick—and it's a good one—is that he intensively gardens the 40-by-20-foot lot behind his London townhouse. Somehow, he has managed to write an entire thick book about his rarefied urban-homesteader lifestyle without sounding the least bit self-satisfied or snobbish. Again, the photography is gorgeous—in the elegantly written introduction, don't miss the bird's eye shots of Slater's garden as it progresses from early spring to the dead of winter. Even more so than Fearnley-Whitingstall's, this book is a valentine to produce—meat turns up in some of the recipes, but each one highlights a specific vegetable. And Slater's focus isn't on just the cooking, but also the growing. The chapters take us alphabetically from asparagus to zucchini, with wise and hard-won tips on growing each, followed by a dozen or so recipes, all of them quite practical. The cooking style is Anglo-Mediterranean, in the proud, unfussy tradition of the great postwar UK food writer Elizabeth David. Not long after the book arrived, I caught my roommate, Maverick Farms director Hillary Wilson, leafing through it with a frown. I asked her what was the matter. "This is the book I wanted to write," she said. "Damn it." I suspect a lot of cooking-obsessed growers will feel the same.

Killer dish: "Carrot and cilantro fritters"
Dish I'm dying to try: "A soup of broccoli and bacon"

Cooking in the Moment: A Year of Seasonal Recipes
By Andrea Reusing

If Slater's book is a love letter to fresh produce, Andrea Reusing has written one to her food shed: North Carolina's highly fertile Piedmont region, with its gently sloping hills that separate the state's mountainous western region (where I live) from the sandy lowlands to the east. Her home base is Chapel Hill/Carrboro, the epicenter of one of the nation's most vibrant small-farm scenes: talented youngsters, back-to-the-landers from the '70s, and traditional smallholders all producing top-flight produce from the region's rich soil and warm climate. In her restaurant Lantern, Reusing takes those raw materials and transforms them into correct and elaborate pan-Asian fare: just the kind of stuff I love to eat in restaurants but am too time-strapped to attempt at home these days. (Full disclosure: Andrea is a friend, and I've had many terrific meals at Lantern). In this book, though, Andrea sheds her chef's toque and shows us how she cooks those same staple ingredients at home with her family: dishes that are simple, fast, and full of flavor. The book is structured seasonally, each chapter containing a mini-profile of a local producer, written in prose as friendly and precise as her cooking. My favorite vignette is the one about her clandestine source for raw milk (which can be legally sold in North Carolina only as animal feed, wink, wink). The story climaxes with a showdown between a food processor and a stand-up mixer over which can turn fresh cream into butter faster and better. Again, the photography is a delight.

Killer dish: "Spinach with melted leeks and cardamom"
Dish I'm dying to try: "Hard-cider braised pork shoulder" (Andrea is an artist of pork)

The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts
By Frédéric Morin, David McMillan, and Meredith Erickson

This bizarre and spectacular book isn't like the other on my list—but then again, it's not much like any other book I know of, cooking-related or otherwise. "What the fuck is Joe Beef?," the great New York chef David Chang asks in the book's introduction. He notes that the name evokes "images of Sloppy Joe's, of ground meat in ketchup, and of hairnets." What Joe Beef is, by all accounts, is one of the best restaurants in North America, crammed into a tiny space in an unfashionable Montreal neighborhood. (The restaurant takes its name from a colorful tavern keeper who kept Montreal's working stiffs well-fed and -lubricated a century ago.) The Art of Living According to Joe Beef is a kind of artist's statement for an idiosyncratic and unlikely restaurant. It doesn't follow seasons or ingredients or meal genres, but rather the quirks and obsessions of the Joe Beef's founders. A cookbook only "of sorts," it offers chapters on the history of eating in Montreal, on nostalgia for trains, on booze (sample sentence: "I love red Burgundy wine so much I want to pour it in my eyes"), on building and mastering your own smoker, and on transforming a crack den into a garden worthy of Nigel Slater. Interrupting the Gonzo-style essays and dazzling photos are recipes for straight-ahead, unfussy French food—a little chefy and rarefied-ingredients-based for my current cooking habits, but deeply appealing. I want to try them all. Even more, I want to make my debut at the bar of Joe Beef.

Killer dish: "Cider turnips" (so far, it's the only recipe I've had everything on hand to try)
Dish I'm dying to try: Every single one, but if I had to choose: "Scallops with pulled pork"

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There's Arsenic in Your Kids' Apple Juice

| Wed Nov. 30, 2011 3:08 PM EST

"I'd hate to take a bite out of you," Burt Lancaster hisses at Tony Curtis in the classic '50s film Sweet Smell of Success. "You're a cookie full of arsenic." The line resonates to this day, because it's jarring to picture something as comforting and innocuous as a cookie being laced with a notorious poison.

And that's precisely what Consumer Reports forces us to do with its just-released story on apple and grape juice—you know, the stuff millions of people feed to their kids every day, sometimes several times a day, in those little boxes. And as with the confection in Lancaster's insult, the poison in question is arsenic.

The FDA currently does not regulate arsenic levels in fruit juices, CR reports. But for bottled and tap water, the agency enforces a standard of no more than 10 parts per billion of arsenic.

Should Fair Trade Certify Giants Like Nestle and Folgers?

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 2:37 PM EST

Just before Thanksgiving, the New York Times' William Neuman published an interesting piece on an emerging rift within the US fair-trade community.

Fair Trade USA, the main US fair-trade certifying entity, has announced plans to essentially lower its standards in the new year, Neuman reports. The group announced it would sever ties with Fairtrade International, "which coordinates fair trade marketing activities in close to two dozen countries," Neuman writes. And large coffee plantations will be eligible for certification—before, only small cooperatives could receive the seal—as will "products with as little as 10 percent fair trade ingredients, compared with a minimum of 20 percent required in other countries."

The plans have enraged the people behind Massachusetts-based Equal Exchange, a stalwart purveyor of fair-trade products. "It's a betrayal," Equal Exchange president Rink Dickinson told Neuman. "They've lost their integrity."

Fair Trade USA, of course, defended the changes. Here's Neuman:

Paul Rice, chief executive of Fair Trade USA, said the fair trade movement was dominated by hard-liners who resisted needed changes. "We're all debating what do we want fair trade to be as it grows up," Mr. Rice said. "Do we want it to be small and pure or do we want it to be fair trade for all?"

He dismissed criticism that his group was seeking to increase revenue for its own sake. "The more we grow volume, the more we can increase the impact" of fair trade, he said.

Who's right? To think it through, it helps to remember why fair trade exists in the first place. The idea behind the movement is pretty simple: International trade in tropical commodities like coffee, chocolate, and bananas may sound like a great deal for workers and small producers in the Global South, but it really isn't.

Study: Common Herbicide Causes Menstrual Trouble

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 8:00 AM EST

Yet again, scientists have looked at populations routinely exposed to the widely used herbicide atrazine and found trouble.

The latest: In a study published by Envionmental Research (summarized here), researchers found evidence that atrazine could be causing menstrual irregularities and low estrogen levels in women, even when it appears in drinking water at levels far below the EPA's limit of 3 parts per billion.

The study showed that women in ag-intensive areas of Illinois, where atrazine has been shown to leach into drinking water from farm fields, were significantly more likely to experience menstrual irregularities and low estrogen levels than women in ag-intensive areas of Vermont, where atrazine use is much lower.

The Vermont/Illinois paper comes on the heels of an analysis of the Agricultural Health Study—an ongoing look at people who regularly apply pesticides and their spouses—that found similar trends among women exposed to atrazine, as well as a 2009 study finding that atrazine levels in drinking water tracked with low-weight birth incidences in Indiana.

LEAKED: Secret Sara Lee Marketing Memo

| Mon Nov. 28, 2011 6:30 AM EST

I write a lot about the meat industry from the outside looking in. So I was delighted when an inside look at the industry fell into my hands: a real-life meat industry image makeover plan.

A source who wishes to remain anonymous gave me printouts from an internal presentation delivered by an official from Sara Lee. The company is best known for its sickly-sweet pies and cakes, but it has emerged as a major player in the packaged-meats market, with a brand list that includes Ball Park franks, Jimmy Dean sausages, and Hillshire Farm deli meats. (Well, it's called Hillshire Farm for the time being anyway—as you'll see below, that may subtly change soon.) Sara Lee has announced plans to split into two parts, one of them focused solely on packaged meat company (a "pure play" meat company, in Wall Street jargon). The plan I received highlights marketing ideas for the emerging meat company.

Below are some highlights. Warning: We are about to enter the strange arena of marketing, where fictional worlds are conjured up out of whole cloth for the sole purpose of moving goods.

From what I can tell, the intention expressed here is to brush up the image of Hillshire Farm and roll out two new premium brands: "Smith & Smith Fine Meats" and "Flat Iron Ranch." The campaign is "foundational," the one slide declares, "and demonstrates how the new, purposeful Sara Lee will manifest: Modern. Authentic. Simple."

From there, we get the new plan for Hillshire Farm(s):


So, this "small network of farms" isn't so much about actually supplying the company, but more about projecting "aspirations." Then we get a slide featuring the logo:



Note those dangling peppercorns ripening on the vine. Those will be a key aspect of the new Hillshire Farms brand—particularly, the roast-turkey product.




And in that image, we find my favorite line in the whole presentation: "Give it up for pepper!" Black pepper isn't the only non-meat ingredient to take a star turn in this plan. Check out what gets highlighted in the ham product:



Good job indeed, bees! Though I have to wonder if our friends in Sara Lee's marketing department have been reading about all the dodgy Chinese honey that's been gushing into the United States as our own bee populations decline. Generally, I find it interesting that the plan isn't to herald any claims about the meat or where it comes from, but rather to focus meaninglessly on flavoring agents like honey and pepper.


From there, after a boring slide on the roast beef product—"sprinkled with salt, pepper, and herbs and roasted oh-so-slowly"—the presentation moves on to a summary of the Hillshire Farms strategy:



So Hillshire Farms is the everyday brand. The presentation then pivots to the upstart high-end brands, Smith & Smith Fine Meats and Flat Iron Ranch:




I should note that I did reach out to the Sara Lee press office to give the company a chance to comment on the document. Officials there confirmed that the presentation was a draft of a marketing plan for the meat division's 2012 launch as a stand-alone company. They emphasized that the effort was a "work in progress," and that what I had gotten hold of was already "way out of date." That wouldn't tell me anything else, except that all questions about the meat arm of Sara Lee would be answered at the company's March 2012 launch presentation for Wall Street analysts—to which they graciously invited me. And maybe I'll even take them up on it.

Draft or not, what we're seeing here is marketing professionals straining to put lipstick, so to speak, on a pig: to swath an industry built on abuse in the gauzy platitudes of sustainability, rarefied taste, and agrarianism.

A recently released, agribusiness-funded marketing study (PDF) put the challenge like this:

There is an inverse relationship between the perception of shared values and priorities for commercial farms. Consumers fear that commercial farms will put profit ahead of principle and therefore cut corners when it comes to other priority issues. As farms continue to change in size and scale we have to overcome that bias by more effectively demonstrating our commitment to the values and priorities of consumers.