Getting hard data on the problem of antibiotic resistance in meat

July 30th, 2013

The New York Times today has a fascinating piece about a really important study being carried out in Flagstaff, Ariz. Researcher Lance Price of George Washington University is taking advantage of the rapidly dropping cost of genomic analysis to match antibiotic resistant germs in grocery-store meat to those found in urinary tract infections reported by local patients. His goal is to see just how many of these fairy common infections can in fact be traced to the grocery supply chain, and thus how significantly commercial meat processing is contributing to the problem of antibiotic resistance.

I expect that Dr. Price will find that our meat supply is in fact a huge vector for dangerous germs. Others may be expecting to see little connection — to instead see support for the idea that eating meat with these pathogens isn’t really the most effective way to convey the germs into the human ecosystem. However it turns out, it’s good to see actual data being gathered and analyzed. Real facts will be much more valuable than biases and suspicions in developing strategies to deal with this health risk.


Froot Loops a Healthy Choice? Riiiight.

September 6th, 2009

If you still have any lingering faith in the good intentions of the processed-food industry, this article from yesterday’s New York Times should set you straight: “For Your Health, Froot Loops.” The story details an industry-backed label called “Smart Choices” whose purpose is to distinguish packaged foods that are more healthful than others. Unfortunately the rules are loosely enough written that foods eligible for the label include Froot Loops and Cocoa Krispies.

Naturally, the article quotes program spokespeople who defend the designations. The president of the Smart Choices board is quoted in defense of Froot Loops:

 She said Froot Loops was better than other things parents could choose for their children.
“You’re rushing around, you’re trying to think about healthy eating for your kids and you have a choice between a doughnut and a cereal,” Dr. Kennedy said, evoking a hypothetical parent in the supermarket. “So Froot Loops is a better choice.”

Baloney. (Also not an ideal choice.) It’s true that cereal, even one that’s 41 percent sugar, is probably a better choice than a doughnut. But Froot Loops is not sitting next to the doughnuts in most supermarkets, though in the interests of full disclosure perhaps it ought to be; it’s in the cereal aisle, alongside Grape-Nuts and Kashi Go Lean and instant oatmeal and other far superior choices.

More objective observers, such as spokespeople for the Center for Science in the Public Interest and NYU nutrition professor Marion Nestle, aren’t buying it either. Nestle remarks, “The object of this is to make highly processed foods appear as healthful as unprocessed foods, which they are not.”

She’s partly right. The object is also to appear to pay heed to consumers’ concerns about nutritional quality while also scrupulously avoiding any admission that some foods just aren’t that good for you. A label that dubs everything a smart choice is meaningless in a marketplace full of a wide range of offerings. The processed food industry is not quite straightforward enough to point to any foods and say “It’s not a healthy choice, but you can probably eat it occasionally without doing too much harm.”

In the Kitchen, at the Sink: A Response to Michael Pollan

August 17th, 2009

In the middle of reading Michael Pollan’s essay “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” published in the July 30 New York Times Magazine, I had to take a break to do some necessary chores, including washing the dishes. Like many New Yorkers, I do not have a dishwasher; unlike many New Yorkers — and according to Pollan, more and more Americans — I cook. It occurred to me, as I scrubbed away the remains of deviled eggs and rinsed off the soapsuds, that cooking and dishwashing are necessarily interrelated. You could even, I thought, make some of the same arguments for the glory of dishwashing that Pollan does for cooking: the beauty of the soap bubbles as they flush away the red and flaky lees from the wineglass; the satisfaction to be derived from seeing an orderly assortment of clean, gleaming, dripping dishes in the dish drainer, and an empty and scrubbed sink where 10 minutes before there was a heap of greasy leavings; the sheer importance of claiming ownership of the hygienic ritual rather than entrusting it to a machine that leaves dried egg and lipstick stains on your crockery.

But if I were to write such a defense, people would laugh. Or think I was out of my mind. They would not take the argument seriously, nor should they. There is precious little glory in dishwashing, which is why it’s the lowest form of scutwork in a kitchen, the task assigned for punishment, or apocryphally for the settlement of a restaurant tab by a penniless diner. Yet home cooking — the work whose decline Pollan laments, variously blaming TV and feminism — depends heavily on dishwashing. No serious cook would rely on paper plates and plastic cups for daily use; even in a fast-food restaurant, the fryer baskets and tongs and grills need to be cleaned for reuse. To study cooking without thinking about the web of tasks in which it exists is to focus too narrowly, even to the point of being ahistorical; and such a narrow focus makes it impossible to present a serious answer to Pollan’s question about why nobody cooks any more.

Pollan’s essay is important, and it deserves to be read carefully, but not to be taken for gospel. He presents some worrying facts: the number of people who cook is declining; within that, the number of people whose cooking involves tasks that can accurately be called cooking (that is, not just reheating a frozen entrée in the microwave) is small. Studies show that societies in which little time is spent cooking have higher rates of obesity, while those that cook more are leaner and healthier. And the food-focused shows that now dominate television, largely on Food Network but on other channels as well, present cooking as entertaining spectacle rather than a skill to be taught.

Pollan begins his essay with an examination of Julia Child and her pioneering cooking show, which really did teach cooking, and — importantly — taught viewers that mistakes were inevitable and could be recovered from. But to draw his contemporary contrast he turns, not to actual cooking-instruction shows such as “Simply Ming,” “America’s Test Kitchen” or even “Good Eats,” but to the prime-time spectacle and contest shows such as “Top Chef” and “Iron Chef America.” These are shows that focus on expert chefs’ fancy skills and use of unusual ingredients, under tremendous time pressure and with a competitive push. They are not cooking instruction but gladiator-style entertainment. The shows are well-rated; but why, he asks, if people are so interested in watching cooking, are fewer people actually doing it?

Surely he realizes that watching entertainment and learning to cook are not the same thing. One may as well ask, if the NFL is so popular, why don’t more people get out in public parks on the weekend and play spontaneous football games? Pollan quotes a friend who asks him, “How much do you learn about playing basketball by watching the N.B.A.?” This to me is the key question, but Pollan does not seem to really hear it.

I had a number of questions I would have asked Pollan. For starters, where did he learn to cook? He doesn’t say. He describes watching his mother cook, which he found fascinating, and watching Julia Child’s show with her; but he doesn’t explain when watching made the transition to learning. I have to assume he did not just learn the skill by watching television. As he notes, it doesn’t work that way. And today’s television programming reflects that. He quotes a Food Network executive: “People don’t watch television to learn things.” She is probably right. And here I want Pollan to ask, where are people learning things? Where do people in our current society learn to cook? If not from television — and why should they learn it from television? They didn’t before television existed — then where? From their mothers? From books? From classes? From high-school home ec? I want to know the answer to this because I suspect it matters.

A lot of the response to this article that’s already come out has focused on Pollan’s lazy conflation of the premiere of Julia Child’s TV show with the publication of “The Feminine Mystique,” which he characterizes as “the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression.” This is so ridiculous a claim as to be impossible to take seriously as an argument. Betty Friedan did not teach anyone who enjoyed cooking to regard it as drudgery, but she certainly enabled a lot of women who already regarded it as drudgery to articulate their frustrations and desires. The fact is, cooking has been drudgery for centuries, for all but the most elite practitioners of the craft. Until the early 20th century, cooking was such a chore that all but the poorest members of society engaged servants to either help them with it or handle the work entirely. Cooking was a job, with rates of pay dependent on the rank of the household and the nature of the work performed. It’s only been in the past century that cooking has been presumed to be a task that American wives were expected to manage with no help at all, save that of labor-saving appliances. Feminism may have helped a lot of disgruntled women figure out what was making them so unhappy, but it didn’t kill cooking. Industrial food production did.

Pollan acknowledges this in his essay, as it happens. He quotes noted historian Laura Shapiro, who explains that “the shift toward industrial cookery began not in response to a demand from women entering the work force but as a supply-driven phenomenon.” Women resisted but were eventually persuaded by a massive marketing and advertising effort to accept processed foods as part of their lives; Pollan notes the well-known story of how cake mixes were made acceptable by being engineered so that consumers had to add eggs, and could thus regard the process as “real” cooking. And decades after the advertisers won their battle, Pollan is surprised that people still believe what they were told? It would be more surprising if we did not.

Yet there is a rising movement of people who do not believe that processed food and industrial systems are the right way to feed our society. Pollan does not acknowledge this, even though he is one of its champions. This may be because the movement is diverse and complex. The rise of community-supported agriculture, the potluck movement, the locavore movement, the advent of classes that help families learn how to pre-cook and freeze a month’s worth of homemade meals, and the rise of organic gardening, all point to a spreading awareness that real food matters and that the best way to ensure a supply of real food is to return to origins: learn to cook, meet your farmers, grow your own food.

Some efforts are still under the radar; others have gotten public attention, and inevitable ridicule as too impractical or elitist. (Remember the ridiculous uproar about the Obamas’ organic garden? It doesn’t seem to have doomed Washington-area supermarkets.) Pollan himself has been derided as an impractical elitist — unfairly, I’ve long thought, though I see some justice in the critique when I come across this comment in his Times essay, following a description of a contestant challenge on the Food Network contest show “Chopped”:

But you do have to wonder how easily so specialized a set of skills might translate to the home kitchen — or anywhere else for that matter. For when in real life are even professional chefs required to conceive and execute dishes in 20 minutes from ingredients selected by a third party exhibiting obvious sadistic tendencies? (String cheese?) Never, is when.

Right, never. Or possibly any time a working mother has to prepare a dinner that will satisfy the picky 7-year-old and still allow time to get the 12-year-old to soccer practice. “Sadistic” might be an extreme word for either child, but the demands and the challenges are not dissimilar.

It is this daily challenge that Pollan fails to address, and this is what undermines his entire argument. At the start of the essay, he recounts the achievement of Julia Child, and then segues into the empowerment that blogger Julie Powell found when she chose Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking as a challenge to lift her out of an existential crisis and find a task to satisfy her passion. Both women, he notes, found that “cooking … was so much more than a means to a meal. It was a gratifying, even ennobling sort of work, engaging both the mind and the muscles. You didn’t do it to please a husband or impress guests; you did it to please yourself. No one cooking on television today gives the impression that they enjoy the actual work quite as much as Julia Child did. In this, she strikes me as a more liberated figure than many of the women who have followed her on television.” What he doesn’t point out is that both Julia Child and Julie Powell had supportive husbands, and no children, and thus did not have to negotiate the sharpest possible conflict between the desire to “please yourself” and the need to get food on the table for a family with unadventurous palates or limited leisure time.

As it happens, I’m in the same boat — supportive husband, no children, only the demands of a full-time job that is not about cooking and a range of creative pursuits that deserve my attention and enthusiasm. And yet I have days that throwing together leftovers or going to a neighborhood diner sounds a lot more appealing than cooking dinner from scratch. It is about the time we have in which to do the work; if we are constrained, our work is constrained, and so necessarily is our enjoyment of it. Pollan acknowledges, “Americans today spend more time working than people in any other industrialized nation — an extra two weeks or more a year. Not surprisingly, in those countries where people still take cooking seriously, they also have more time to devote to it.” Indeed; those of us who know we’ll have to wash the dishes when we’re done cooking are acutely aware of the limits of our time. This, I think, is the real problem. I wish he’d explored it more instead of throwing stones at Betty Friedan.

Apologies for the hiatus; bit more hiatus to come

July 12th, 2009

Sorry to have been so neglectful. I’ve been occupied by work and some other projects, and expect them to take a bit more of my time for the next week or so. But I hope to resume regular updates soon.

In the meantime, here are a couple of things of interest:

  • Several people have pointed me to Fancy Fast Food, a blog that explores ways to make haute cuisine out of fast-food offerings. Recent posts include The Colonel’s Chicken Corn Chowder, BK Quiche, and Dao Mi Noh Chow Mein (Fancy Domino’s Pizza). Cleverly done, but seems a bit of a waste considering what one could do with real food given the same time and effort. I applaud the creativity.
  •  Also, I have a new blog under way: 107 Cookbooks, in which I aim to cook at least one recipe from each of the 107 cookbooks in my collection by June 30, 2010. Including the 30-some books I’ve accumulated for Recipes of the Damned. So far I’ve done 6. There is Jell-O in my future.

CHEEZ-IT Soufflé

June 2nd, 2009

I have been worrying lately that I might run out of sources for Recipes of the Damned. The current food movement seems to be based on whole foods, real foods, real cooking, and a real concern about the quality of the food we eat. But as I was doing an inventory of my cookbook collection this evening, I realized that my fears are misplaced. The Kellogg’s Cookbook was published in 2006, and if only three years ago people were serious about publishing Cheez-It Soufflé, we are clearly not as highly evolved as I thought.

Which is not to say I’ve never eaten Cheez-Its. I confess, I kind of like them. But in a soufflé? Shouldn’t one be using real cheese, preferably a strong artisanal cheddar? I mean, Cheez-Its taste sort of like middling-to-good cheddar wrapped in a salt lick. That’s one of the things I like about them; a good snack food is first and foremost a salt delivery system as far as I’m concerned. Corporate America has been happy to oblige me. But that seems all wrong for a soufflé.

Cheez-It Souffle

Cheez-It Soufflé

1 cup Cheez-It crackers
6 large eggs
1½ cups milk
¼ cup butter or margarine
1 teaspoon grated onion
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Preheat oven to 300 F.
2. Place the Cheez-It crackers in a resealable plastic bag. Seal the bag and, using a rolling pin, crush the crackers to a fine crumb. Set aside.
3. Separate the eggs. Place the yolks in a small, heatproof bowl and beat to blend. Set aside.
4. Place the egg whites in a large bowl. Set aside.
5. Combine the milk and butter in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, for about 2 minutes, or just until the butter has melted. Add half of the reserved crumbs along with the onion and salt and pepper to taste. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes or until the mixture begins to thicken and boil. Immediately lower the heat and whisk a bit of the hot mixture into the egg yolks to temper them. Scrape the egg yolk mixture into the hot mixture. Cook, stirring constantly, for about 3 minutes, or until the mixture returns to a boil. Remove from heat.
6. Using a hand-held electric mixer, beat the reserved egg whites until stiff but not dry. Fold the egg whites into the hot Cheez-It mixture to just incorporate. Fold in the remaining Cheez-It crumbs to just blend.
7. Pour the mixture into an ungreased 1½-quart casserole. Bake in the preheated oven for about 1¼ hours, or until puffed and lightly browned.
8. Remove from oven and serve immediately.

From The Kellogg’s Cookbook. Judith Choate, ed. New York: Bulfinch Press for Kellogg’s Kitchens, 2006.

The value of cooking

May 31st, 2009

This blogging thing can be a challenge when you find yourself working 10- and 11-hour days. But I must pause here to comment on two recent articles in the New York Times.

I’m a bit late to the party on the first, which I’ve seen reposted on blogs, Facebook and Twitter many times by now. In the May 24 Sunday Magazine,  Matthew B. Crawford offers “The Case for Working With Your Hands.” Crawford has a Ph.D. in political philosophy, but has found both satisfaction and remuneration in working as a motorcycle mechanic. He argues that in an age in which everyone is urged to go to college and “information work” is the focus of most career planning, people have lost sight of the fact that manual work well performed requires a significant amount of careful, intelligent and creative thinking. “Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience,” he says, and goes on to illustrate the complexity and intellectual engagement required of him daily.

His larger argument, though, is that physical work requires a particular kind of integrity, while office work can force a good thinker to quash moral considerations in the name of office politics or in the face of business planning over which the worker has no control. “An economy that is more entrepreneurial, less managerial, would be less subject to the kind of distortions that occur when corporate managers’ compensation is tied to the short-term profit of distant shareholders. For most entrepreneurs, profit is at once a more capacious and a more concrete thing than this. It is a calculation in which the intrinsic satisfactions of work count — not least, the exercise of your own powers of reason.” As you can tell from the phrasing here, he’s not talking solely about mechanical labor but about an entrepreneurial venture; however, his article suggests that if you develop expertise at work done with your hands you are in a better position to pursue the kinds of work that enable you to freely exercise your own reason in the service of concrete reality, regardless of whether you are an employee or an owner-operator.

A lot of the foodies I follow have responded enthusiastically to this article, as have many artists. This is not surprising, since a significant aspect of the current food movement is about learning to cook for yourself and getting good at the manual labor of chopping, sauteeing, butchering, brewing or fermenting. When you learn to trust the ingredients and your skill with them, you become a far better cook than if you just blindly follow the steps of a recipe without daring to understand the alchemy of the cooking process or the nature of the foods involved. And you have a lot more fun at it as well.

The other article appears in today’s Week in Review section. In “The Commander in Chef,” Amanda Hesser notes with some disappointment that Michelle Obama’s commitment to healthy and natural food stops short of an actual commitment to cook. “I don’t miss cooking; I’m just fine with other people cooking,” she quotes the first lady, but as Hesser notes, this casts cooking as a chore, and this is a problem. “For most of the last century, Americans have been told repeatedly that cooking is a time-consuming drag,” Hesser says, and the processed food manufacturers have profited by selling us mixes, powders, packets and tins. And Americans have suffered in terms of food quality, nutrition, money, and the opportunity to build family togetherness through the sharing of kitchen skills from generation to generation.

I came of age at a point when young women were beginning to feel a real sense of entitlement to freedom from the domestic roles to which they had been confined for generations. The world, we thought, offered us unlimited possibilities, and those of us who were even a little bit feminist felt that we had to rise to the challenge by choosing careers in business, academe or politics over any of the pursuits that fell under the umbrella of home economics. I had learned to cook, but many of my peers had not — had rejected it as vigorously as women of a pre-computer age had rejected learning how to type, reasoning that if you didn’t have the traditionally feminine skill you couldn’t be relegated to secretarial work or family cookery. What those women didn’t realize was that by turning their backs on the kitchen they were unwittingly buying into the sexist denigration of cooking, and the classist denigration of working with one’s hands.

It’s long past time for us to realize that manual and menial are not synonyms, and that honest work that leaves your hands covered with motor oil or chicken fat is better for the soul than the pursuit of Ponzi schemes and hostile takeovers.

Short post in passing

May 25th, 2009

No time to write a full post, just apologies for the absence. I was on vacation; you can see photos at my Flickr site and you can check out tonight’s dinner at Recipes of the Yum. I’ll be posting again before long.

Safety Counts, Except When It Doesn’t

May 16th, 2009

We’ll just take for granted my standard whine about having been too busy to sit down and think clearly enough to write a post, and move straight along to a roundup of food highlights from this week.

First off, this New York Times piece from Thursday: “Food Companies Are Placing the Onus for Safety on Consumers.”  The headline gets to the point: As the ingredient supply chain becomes more complex and the ability to trace the source of contamination becomes more difficult, food companies are focusing attention on telling the consumer to take the final steps necessary to ensure safety. For example, ensuring that a prepared pot pie is heated to a particular minimum temperature. Why so much complexity? Because companies are chasing the lowest cost, which means sourcing from a variety of vendors around the world and making frequent changes to lock in that rock-bottom price. As opposed, say, to establishing relationships of trust and accountability with a core group of favored vendors who can be counted on to ensure quality and safety. A lot of the food bloggers that I read on Twitter were not impressed, and many passed along this quote from Dan Savage: “And as a general rule, food consumers, anything with more than one or two ingredients that costs 69 cents should be presumed to be unsafe.” Obviously consumers can’t be careless, but putting the onus for safety on consumers seems misguided when the complicated ingredient supply chains are raising risks of pathogens in foods such as breakfast cereals. Still, the NYT article has given me a new favorite phrase: “an adequate lethality.”

Then we have the continuing efforts by the agricultural chemical lobby to paint the White House kitchen garden as an abomination. Readers will remember the leaked memo that acknowledged the industry’s fright at the Obamas’ plans to make the garden organic. Bizarrely, industry officials have not shut up. More bizarrely, one spokesman granted an interview to Samantha Bee of the Daily Show. Here’s my question:If you’re a communications director in a staid industry such as agricultural chemicals and someone from the Daily Show calls asking if you’d like to be interviewed by Samantha Bee, are you seriously naive enough to say yes?

Which leads to another question: If Stephen Colbert shows up to eat an overpriced menu offering at your restaurant, shouldn’t you take that as a sign that you’re doing something ridiculous? The Colbert Report on Thursday Night ran a series of spots on the theme of food (in addition to the theme “Stephen Colbert is awesome”): a skewering of soft drink industry efforts to resist a soda tax, a look at absurdly luxurious foods such as the $1,000 sundae, and an interview with Michael Pollan. Funny stuff. It’s hard to decide which I liked better from the Serendipity 3 segment, the bit where Colbert snorts a line of the edible gold or when he says, “If I gave you another thousand dollars, could I you make somebody poor watch me eat it?”

Yes, I Have No Bananas

May 3rd, 2009

I went to the Brooklyn Food Conference yesterday, and it was tremendous. Overwhelming, really; there were something like 50 workshops (I only managed to attend two), exhibitors, food demos, and great opening and closing sessions. I think I have developed a crush on Raj Patel, probably because he was introduced as having “been tear-gassed on four continents while protesting” and then managed to crack us all up with “Time Bandits” references. And to slam the World Bank at the same time. Anyway, I took in a tremendous amount of information that I will be processing over the next few days. I almost said digesting, ha ha. And I’ll be blogging about it as I manage to develop coherent thoughts on the various issues.

Right now I will confess that the single most depressing thing I learned yesterday was that there are no really virtuous bananas available for sale in the United States. This is not to say there weren’t other depressing bits of information shared–the labor abuses and human rights violations of which Coke stands accused, the difficulty of finding fresh produce (let alone organic) in too many urban neighborhoods, the fact that US foreign aid policy fosters commodity export farming rather than self-reliance–but the fact about bananas was really news to me and affects me directly. According to Tim Keating of Rainforest Relief, bananas imported from Costa Rica are grown in full sun despite the fact that bananas are naturally a shade plant (much like coffee and cacao), on monoculture plantations, and are processed by workers who toil under deplorable conditions. Organic bananas are at least free of the heavy doses of pesticides and other chemicals conventional bananas receive, but they’re still grown in full-sun monoculture plantations. After learning this and seeing photos of the plantations and the processing facilities, I thought, I can’t support that. I ate the last of our bananas this morning and will not be buying any more for the foreseeable future.

And as I ate the last bite, I thought, why am I so depressed about this? Bananas aren’t my favorite fruit; they’re not even in the top ten, really, especially when strawberries are in season. I already knew that their importation from Central America meant they represented more “food miles” and petroleum use than a lot of the fruit available to me.

But I realized this wasn’t about the bananas; it was about the sheer complexity of it all. I think there are a lot of people who start out wanting to eat more ethically, virtuously, whatever you want to call it, and then quickly become overwhelmed by the different issues to sort out. Is industrial organic better or worse than local produce that isn’t organic-certified? Am I a bad person for stopping at the local chain supermarket for conventional produce because I didn’t have time to get to a farmer’s market while it was open? Free-range beef, or tofu made from GMO soybeans?

I don’t want to be one of those people who throw up their hands in despair and give up on trying to impose some ecological and ethical standards on their diet because of these challenges. I want to have the courage and the resilience to confront those challenges head-on, and to recognize that I’m not always going to be able to act perfectly but that I have to try my best. I don’t want to give up on my principles because I didn’t manage to make time to get to a retailer that offers organic produce in a given week.

One of the key points made across a range of yesterday’s discussions was that the global food system is complicated, immense, and dysfunctional. I should not be surprised that my little individual attempts to shop and eat ethically are not simple, because I depend on a very complicated system that fosters monoculture and ecological destruction. There are things I can do, individually and in concert with others, to try to combat that and bring about positive changes.  But I can’t let myself be surprised that there are challenges along the way.

After the conference I met my husband for dinner nearby, and ended up in a place with a TV just in time to catch the running of the Kentucky Derby. The long-shot win was compelling, and my husband, who was facing the TV, couldn’t help continuing to watch the replays and discussion. He was rewarded with an inadvertently hilarious image:


(It probably helps to know that Yum Brands, parent company of such marginally yummy offerings as KFC and Long John Silver’s, is the Derby sponsor.) In this setup, found online, it looks like the horse is pretty happy about his feedbag. On the TV screen my husband was watching, the “Yum” logo was displayed beneath the horse outline, which my husband read as “The Kentucky Derby–Yum!” and could not help thinking, “But we don’t eat horses in this country!”

A Curious Trend: Attacks on local/sustainable food

April 25th, 2009

In the past couple of weeks a curious trend has become apparent. Suddenly there are articles appearing in a variety of publications attacking local, sustainable, free-range, organic food. To be sure, attacks on organic produce are nothing new; it’s practically a cliche for those opposed to throw up their hands in indignation and say “Organic produce is SO EXPENSIVE!” But these new articles are taking different approaches to try to demonize sustainable food.

One of the first I noticed was an op-ed in the New York Times, “Free-Range Trichinosis,” arguing that free-range pork is no safer than feedlot pork that’s been pumped with antibiotics. The argument was based on a single study that found higher levels of pathogens in free-range pork (though the numbers for CAFO pork did not exactly inspire confidence: rates of salmonella were 54 percent in free-range pigs but 39 percent in conventional ones, and that’s somehow truly better?). “The natural dangers that motivated farmers to bring animals into tightly controlled settings in the first place haven’t gone away,” said the author. Such as perhaps the natural danger that letting pigs see sunlight and move around could cut into industrial profits. Funny thing about this article: Four full days after it was published, the Times saw fit to add an editor’s note admitting that the article “neglected to disclose the source of the financing for a study finding that free-range pigs were more likely than confined pigs to test positive for exposure to certain pathogens. The study was financed by the National Pork Board.” You don’t say? I would never have guessed.

Then in the past couple of days, a number of people on my Twitter feed were posting the URL to a blog entry on Every Kitchen Table rebutting this Smart Money article by Kelley Barron, “10 Things Your Farmer’s Market Won’t Tell You.” The response, “10 Thoughts About Farmer’s Markets (A Rebuttal),” knocks down Barron’s arguments in turn, with reasoned perspective and a judicious bit of indignation. To be sure, there is useful and valid information in Barron’s article, though some of her arguments are a bit one-sided or misleading. (As if the portion of your tax dollars that support farmer’s markets isn’t tiny compared with that amount subsidizing commercial agriculture? And her point that Union Square Greenmarket is extremely crowded made me laugh out loud; has she ever tried to grocery shop anywhere in New York City?) Barron offers some useful guidance to the reader who has absolutely no familiarity with farmer’s markets, locally grown produce or the natural appearance of ripe fruit, but the title and tone give the reader the impression that farmer’s markets are hiding something and are not what they’re cracked up to be. (No, farmer’s market produce isn’t sanitized and ready to eat without washing. Do you really think the produce in your megamart is?) All of which leaves the implication that big commercial food distributors are models of transparency and virtue. Riiiight.

And of course there was the response of the agribusiness lobby to the Obamas’ planting of an organic garden at the White House. According to a London Times article, the Mid-America CropLife Association sent the First Lady a letter touting the virtues of “technology in agriculture,” which has allowed farms to feed vast numbers of people. Never mind that the White House kitchen garden isn’t looking to be the primary source of produce for the DC metropolitan area; the lobby’s real agenda was to pooh-pooh the focus on organics. As the article notes, e-mail among association members was less diplomatic, with the executive director saying, “the thought of it being organic made (us) shudder.” Hmm. Me, I shudder at the idea of crop acreage that can’t safely be entered by humans for several days after chemicals are sprayed.

I don’t think these writers are ignorant. I think they’re actively campaigning to promote the idea that pesticide- and herbicide-intensive, antibiotic-administering, long-haul-trucking-dependent food retailing is something that people should embrace rather than turning to organic, pesticide-free, humanely raised or locally grown foodstuffs. I think the leaders of these industries are scared. And while I’m glad they’re scared, I’d rather see them clean up their own behaviors than use misleading or incomplete arguments to attack sustainable farming.