adventures in craft beer and real food

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Cookie Cutter

In today's Wisconsin State Journal, columnist Bill Wineke took a stand against a new line of dolls for young girls. These dolls look normal enough, except that they come with a Bible lesson, cookie cutters and a recipe, and a list of activities. In his column, Wineke argues that such toys could have a deleterious effect on the upbringing of girls who might, as a result, aspire to a life of traditional domesticity.

Fair enough. All children, whether boys and girls, should decide for themselves what kind of life they want. For many, this involves some balance of a career and a family. Others may ultimately decide to do one or the other. It's not clear to me that one choice is inherently better than the other. Feminism, after all, is about giving women the right to work as their skills and desires dictate, not about women working. Toys play a role in that upbringing. I played with a lot of GI Joes when I was little, and for the longest time I wanted to attend the Naval Academy. So it's not unreasonable based on my personal experience with toys that a domestically-oriented toy might encourage girls to place too much emphasis upon family life, just like GI Joes maybe encouraged me to develop too much interest in military struggle.

What is unreasonable is Wineke's many unwritten assumptions throughout his article. For one thing, it's not clear to me that Leah, Elisabeth, and Abigail are really all about staying home, never thinking about working outside the home, and smashing the many contributions of feminism. They're dolls, and children impose their own narratives onto them -- not the other way around.

Since this is a food blog I'll go into but one of thing that gave me pause. Wineke wonders if "making cookies is the highest aspiration we can set for our daughters."

Since when were cooking and baking trifles, spurious activities that should not be taken Seriously? Learning to cook is good thing. It encourages healthy eating habits, independence, and gets you doing something with your hands. And it's a craft that anyone can take pride in, and whose product appeals to everyone. It can lead to an increasingly respected profession on top of that. Cooking can be incredibly simple or incredibly complex. I'm sure if they were instead Science Dolls that came with a protractor, Wineke would ask if drawing circles was "the highest aspiration we can set for our daughters." It's not like Science Doll owners would be deriving Euclid's Elements with it.

It bothers me that most people view cooking in the context of home economics, rather than a craft. This approach, reinforced by public education, seem bass ackwards to me. The food I made in home economics was not stuff that I'd ever want to eat. We made pizza by toasting some bread, spreading some canned pasta sauce on top of it, along with some pre-grated cheese, and pre-sliced pepperoni. Could you imagine coming home from work and making that for dinner? Yeah, I can't either.

Cooking is an important skill, and an important component of a cultural identity. If that identity is reflected by the "pizza" I learned how to make in junior high, then it's a sad state of affairs. Children should be taught to make food that tastes good and that they can take pride in. When I taste the difference between a canned product and one I've made myself, this little lightbulb has always gone off in my head telling me "so this is what it's supposed to taste like." Once you taste the difference between something as simple as homemade stock, as opposed to the canned stuff, you're hooked. Not because someone made you to combine ingredients somehow or because it's good for you or because it saves money. But because it's what you actually want.

If Proverbs-reading, feminism-crushing, cookie-baking dolls motivate children to actually make a cookie... well... that's something important, isn't it?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The GRAS is always greener...

Health-minded organizations and bloggers have suggested that the FDA remove salt from the list of food ingredients that are generally regarded as safe (GRAS). Most notably, the American Medical Association jumped on the bandwagon last year. The argument goes something like this: Salt is bad for you. It can cause high blood pressure, and increase your chances of having a heart attack. And studies have linked an over-consumption of salt with everything from asthma to osteoporosis. Clearly anything that increases your chances of finding yourself at the bottom of a six foot hole is not safe, and should not be "generally regarded" as such.

Proponents of this idea do have a point, although only to a limit. Many ready-to-eat convenience foods and restaurants serve salt way in excess of the recommended daily allowance of 5.8 g. This practice is bad for the health of diners, who might otherwise be led to believe that the food they chose is healthy given a variety of common label claims (low fat, heart smart, etc.). Reducing salt intake by 50% as the American Medical Association recommends would likely contribute to better health.

However, I kind of wonder how many of these activists have actually looked into the regulations they want changed.

First and foremost, what does it mean for an ingredient to be have GRAS status? Well, it actually might be easier to say what GRAS doesn't mean. According to the FDA, "GRAS ... status does not guarantee a substance's safety."

Now that we have that out of the way, let's get down to business. In 1958, the US Congress passed a measure that divides all things added to food into four categories: food additives, prior sanctioned, generally regarded as safe, and color additives. Food additives, what activists argue salt should be classified as, must be approved by the FDA before they can be used in any amount. Substances that have GRAS status are said to have a "long, safe history of safe history of common use in food" or have been adequately demonstrated to be safe by science. GRAS substances don't need to be tested because they have been used for such a long time that the safety is taken for granted.

This sentiment is codified in law in title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations section 182.1 ("21 CFR 182.1") where it is stated
(a) It is impracticable to list all substances that are generally recognized as safe for their intended use. However, by way of illustration, the Commissioner regards such common food ingredients as salt, pepper, vinegar, baking powder, and monosodium glutamate as safe for their intended use. This part includes additional substances that, when used for the purposes indicated, in accordance with good manufacturing practice, are regarded by the Commissioner as (generally) recognized as safe for such uses.
In struggling to define what GRAS status means, I found consolation in the fact that the FDA can't seem to define it either. At any rate, the ensuing sections provide a list of substances that are generally considered to be safe. This list includes everything from alfalfa to zedoary bark and amusingly lard and hydrogenated tallow (when contributed to food from cotton or cotton fabrics used in dry food packaging).

My main objection to the reclassification of salt is that it is not the consumption of salt that's unhealthy, it's the over consumption that results in adverse health effects. Within recommended levels, salt is absolutely essential for the human body to function. Consuming too much of nearly anything will bring you to harm, as the news story that came out today of a woman dying of water intoxication so poignantly demonstrates. If drinking too much water will kill you, so will consuming too much lactic acid or zein. And especially ethanol (the chemical that makes you drunk). So in challenging the GRAS status of good ol' sodium chloride, the entire basis of the GRAS classification is being challenged if dosage is ignored. Everything is bad for you if you consume too much of it, therefore nothing can be regarded as safe?

The bottom line is that people have been seeking out salt to eat for thousands of years. It can't be that bad for you.

If the proponents of the measure have anything going for them, it's that the FDA could do a better job of making sure that salt levels are reasonable. Indeed, the government already mandates that (21 CFR 182.1)

(b) For the purposes of this section, good manufacturing practice shall be defined to include the following restrictions:

(1) The quantity of a substance added to food does not exceed the amount reasonably required to accomplish its intended physical, nutritional, or other technical effect in food; and

(2) The quantity of a substance that becomes a component of food as a result of its use in the manufacturing, processing, or packaging of food, and which is not intended to accomplish any physical or other technical effect in the food itself, shall be reduced to the extent reasonably possible.

Well, then, the amount of any GRAS substance added to food must be the very least necessary to accomplish its function. Most fast food products probably add salt in excess of this limit. However unless otherwise stated 21 CFR only applies to the manufacture of food products, not restaurants (see 21 CFR 1.327). Then again, many prepackaged food items probably contain unreasonable amounts of salt as well. The FDA could challenge the manufacturers of these products to reduce the amount of sodium in their products.

I have mixed feelings, though, about the FDA compelling manufacturers into strict compliance. For one thing, just because something is unhealthy doesn't mean that it should be illegal. The sodium content of all prepacked food is already required thanks to 21 CFR 101.9, so consumers can if they are sufficiently inclined be knowledgeable and make reasonable decisions accordingly. Eating The Big One is bad for my health, but the government shouldn't prevent me from eating it if I want to. And besides, government involvement tends to make things suck. Take a look at Chicago banning the sale of foie gras.

Eating a healthy diet is important, and salt is a critical part of one. To the extent that we'd all be healthier if we ate less salt, I applaud the AMA for the reminder. Their argument, however, doesn't make sense in the context of federal regulations. And, frankly, it fails the common sense test too.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Attack of the clones

For those of you who haven't yet heard, the FDA issued a statement last week that concludes that milk and meat from cloned animals is safe to eat. While the press has taken this as an announcement that the FDA has conclusively decided that cloned meat is safe, and many bloggers have responded with alarm, things might not be so bad as they appear.

For starters, the FDA is not making this stuff up. From a regulatory standpoint, the question of the safety of cloned meat is a valid one. The FDA is charged with investigating the issue and reaching a decision. It seems the FDA consulted the professional literature on the subject and found insubstantial evidence that cloned meat is unhealthy. In response, they drafted a risk assessment, risk management plan, and guidelines for industry. And issued the press release that started this whole debate.

At first the issue seemed downright bizarre to me. After all, who would want to clone farm animals? Who is pushing for this and why? The who half, at least, is easy: the mega-dairy industry.

In the conventional dairy industry, revenue is proportional to the volume of milk produced. The more milk is produced, the higher your profits can be with the same size herd. Farmers from top to bottom do everything to maximize production. They feed cows the bovine equivalent of Science Diet. They restrict and often deny access to pasture. The milk production of each cow is often closely monitored until the cow's production starts to decline at the age of four, at which time it is slaughtered. There's nothing wrong with wanting to make the best living you can. And if consumers ultimately wanted their milk and meat from pastoral settings, they would demand it with their wallets. However, cloning offers the possibility of refining this a step further. A good cow can be cloned. Then these clones can be mated to produce an entire herd of cows that produce a lot of milk.

One source has said that the cost of cloning one animal is something in the ball park of $20,000. As a result, the idea is that farmers would clone a small handful of animals and then breed the clones the old fashioned way. When these clones get older, farmers would like to be able to sell these animals for slaughter. Thus, the chance that an individual would consume a clone is ridiculously small.

However, there are many reasons why farm animals should not be cloned.

The first reason that jumps out at me is genetic diversity. Traditionally, milk and beef came from the kinds of cattle in the local community. Due to slit-throat competition, many of these farmers have opted for breeds that have a milk production that is copious and has a desirable fat content. Today, one breed of cow -- the holstein -- accounts for over 90% of the US dairy herd. Genetic diversity ought to be preserved as a buffer against disease if for no other reason. The cloning of livestock only exacerbates this problem by reducing the genetic diversity in that one breed of cow.

The cloning of animals for food pushes the US away from the rest of the world, which would seem to be bad economic policy. The US is already on thin ice with our "if you don't look for it, you won't find it" approach to BSE. If the EU or Japan decided that they weren't going to import US meat that resulted from cloning, the entire meat industry in the United States would be significantly compromised. There is no analytical test to determine if an animal has been cloned, and so there is no way for a country that bans cloned foodstuffs to selectively block its entry. US farmers, then, would have to either slaughter entire herds or face closed markets abroad. You'd think that US farmers would want to raise their livestock in a way that would allow it compete or even oust its competitors. Cloning livestock for food does the opposite.

Third, competition in the dairy industry is fierce. The twenty large price tag for cloning an animal is a hugely expensive proposition for many dairy operations. If a farmer can't pony up the money, they'll be at a competitive disadvantage. If they can pony up the money, they lose a great deal of capital which could threaten the financial solvency of the business. The net effect is to encourage the trend toward large scale confinement operations, and discourage traditional family-run dairy operations.

Fourth, ground meat is often a mixture of the meat of hundreds of animals. One cloned cow in a herd results in a whole batch of potentially "bad for you" meat.

Fifth, and I believe this point to be especially important, is that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because studies have failed to demonstrate any negative health impacts due to the consumption of cloned meat doesn't mean that it's safe to eat. Many of these studies have not been conducted for extended periods of time. While there's no bio-logical reason to suppose that cloned meat is in any way different from eating traditional meat, the long-term effects are not known.

As a result of any one of these factors, including food safety, the FDA should opt against the sale of cloned animals for food. Failing that, the government ought at the very least to require food from cloned animals to be labeled as such. Consumers should have the ability to make a reasonable choice as to what they eat and what they don't.