Thursday, January 29, 2004

Sorry people, I'm trying to get some work done here. In the meantime, why don't you pick up an imaginary girlfriend on ebay? Options include California, "Hoooters!", latina, college, and MILF.

[please ignore the mind-bending implications of calling oneself a MILF; link via gawker, natch]

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

wine geekery [WS]
Piero Mastroberardino said, "This puts the province of Avellino at the same level of Siena and Cuneo."
Nice try Piero, but no.
Wed. Food
As far as the organic-industrial complex mentioned yesterday, Michael Pollan was on that years ago [via this site via Sauté Wednesday]. Note to stupid conservatives: if you stopped watching South Park for a second you'd realized that once it's in the Times, it's dead.

Meanwhile, in today's papers:
NY: In case you didn't believe me about the salumi of Paul Bertolli, Johnny Apple spent the week in Oakland, and not at Krug; Nancy Harmon Jenkins is still writing about Fore Street -- but you know you want the kraut; and Hesser counts the bacteria in your kitchen:

"The basic reality is that the risks that scare people and the risks that kill people are very different," said Dr. Peter M. Sandman
LA: the Times continues its assault on good wine and good sense, tilting at the terroir windmill (sorry, Don Quijote is in the air; note by the way that the Thackrey Pleiades is actually a pretty good, if unnecessarily barndyardy, wine); mmm, pozole (the pozole verde recipe looks suspect); and Russ Parsons waxes uncharacteristically hackish on greens:
Last week I found mustard greens at my local upscale supermarket. What's next?
Russ, have you been to the Santa Monica farmer's market? It's 2004, dude.
SF: The arbequina has landed.
Monsanto is going to stop selling GM soybeans in Argentina, because of rampant piracy [cbt]. Is it just me, or is this kind of thing a good reason to make sure we know what we're doing before releasing these crops into the environment?

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

unclear on the concept
There is an article by someone named John Miller in National Review about the shocking myths of the "organic movement." Luckily, I can't read it without a subscription, but it is summarized by the wackos at CCF. It is astounding to me how these people, whose lives consist of the automatic defense of anything corporate (if you don't believe me, read the site: I'm not exaggerating) just love to attack organic food producers because they're... big corporations.

Which doesn't change the fact that you're not really changing the world by buying General Mills organic Count Chocula for your kids, or serving it with Horizon milk for that matter. Let's all be clear on the idea that fresh, local food is what you want, and for reasons of quality, not the salvation of humanity. "Organic," now that the USDA's got their hands all over it, is more or less irrelevant.

[this whole discussion is so last year anyway: see Pollan and Kummer; update: in fact, so three years ago.]

Forbes non-story on GM wheat approval. Speaking of which, here's the Federal Register notice about those new APHIS rules announced last week. I know you've been waiting anxiously for that link. Here's the press release on the new FDA feed rules.

In other USDA news, Jim Barnett of the Oregonion notices that the (already tainted) Harvard Center for Risk Analysis report has been consistently distorted by government officials:

Veneman first overstated the study's conclusions on Nov. 30, 2001, in an agency announcement of the study's release. Veneman said the study "clearly shows" that existing precautions, including a ban on recycling cow meat into animal feed, "have helped keep BSE (mad cow) from entering the United States."
I told you this was going to be a good thing [Chron]
The government is outlawing cattle blood in livestock feed and the use of cow brains and other parts in dietary supplements, part of broader restrictions in wake of the nation's first known case of mad cow disease.

The Food and Drug Administration announced the steps late Monday to close loopholes in its livestock feed ban -- a key protection against the spread of the brain-wasting disease in cattle -- and to make sure that people don't consume risky animal parts in processed foods and supplements..

The Gawker media empire has finally expanded beyond porn to.... politics? The terribly-named wonkette, operated by self-proclaimed muse and serial failure* Ms. Cox, is up and running. Go there for your daily dose of DC insider gossip and jokes about Kerry's hair. No, really, it's funny.

So, um, Nick, you wanna pay me to write about the USDA or something?

*Hey, she said it.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Some fucking rocket scientist decided to plant pharmaceutical-producing GM rice in California. The Japanese are going to love that. Mike Lee has the scoop in the Sacramento Bee.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Tech day
Clark, et al., "Pattern of diversity in the genomic region near the maize domestication gene tb1," PNAS 101, 700-707: "the simplest interpretation of our analyses is that selection at tb1 has not appreciably affected genomic diversity at other genes." This is surprising because
Domestication has had far-reaching effects on crop genomes that are only now being understood. A common feature of domestication has been reduction of genetic diversity in crops relative to wild progenitors.... Selection is expected both (i) to reduce diversity at selected loci as favorable alleles are driven to high frequency and (ii) to reduce diversity at linked loci through the effect of genetic hitchhiking.
If this is a little over your head, the glossary of genetic terms will help.

Wilhelm, et al., "Crop and Soil Productivity Response to Corn Residue Removal," Agronomy Journal 96, 1-17 reviews the literature inconclusively, but serves warning that ethanol production may severely impoverish the corn belt's soil.

Gil-Izquierdo, et al., "Effect of the Rootstock and Interstock Grafted in Lemon Tree (Citrus limon (L.) Burm.) on the Flavonoid Content of Lemon Juice," J. Agric. Food Chem. 52, 324 -331 reveals the answer to something I've always wondered: grafted rootstock does affect the flavonoid content of the the fruit (in lemon trees at least). You probably have to be a wine geek to realize that I'm totally serious right now.

The Sacramento Bee's Mike Lee appears to have the best coverage of Schmeiser v. Monsanto:
Justice William Ian Corneil Binnie asked whether limiting patents would leave commercial inventions on laboratory shelves.

Monsanto lawyer Roger T. Hughes assured the justices that it would hamper innovation.

But as Hughes spoke, he was pelted by questions from the bench about whether Monsanto's modified genes can be legally viewed as separate from the plants in which they grow. That line of questioning would take on added importance if the court believes that plants are excluded from patenting by its 2002 ruling on higher life forms.

Justice Binnie also questioned whether the lower courts ought to have awarded Monsanto monetary damages. "How can a trial judge... order an accounting of profits when there is no finding that the invention profited (Schmeiser) a nickel?" he asked.

Monsanto lawyer Arthur B. Renaud said punitive damages keep farmers honest. Without them, he said, "It comes down to 'catch me if you can.'

[Also, Forbes/Reuters]

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

You think it's bad now? [Suburban Guerrilla]
More than 50 percent of the employees at the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be eligible for retirement within the next five years.

Already, they're so busy they can't handle Country of Origin Labelling [NYT]:

"The country-of-origin provision contained in the farm bill is a targeted retail marketing tool, not a food safety or animal health program," Ms. Veneman wrote, "and it should be treated as such."
On the other hand, APHIS finally seems to be getting on the biotech ball.
Invisible hand
Business Week flinches
There are, however, clear dangers to moving to untrammeled laissez-faire competition in agriculture. Food, after all, is different from other products because in times of war and other crises (like a serious disease outbreak that could shut down the world's food-trading system for a time) you need it to survive.
Uh, ok. But then:
To my mind, sustainable agriculture offers the best hope for preserving America's independent family farms.
You think?
"Literary" digression: department of unpleasant trends
Katha Pollitt, is, of course, infinitely more bearable than David Denby, the other New Yorker writer who has been revealing unsavory personality traits to an uncaring world. In fact, I think I used to "like" Pollitt, back when one read the Nation -- or at least I felt then that she somehow redeemed that gruelling slog. Denby, conversely, has been an excuse to finish the New Yorker just a little faster on alternate weeks -- for which we would have been grateful were it not for the embarassing juxtaposition with Anthony Lane.

Stalking your asshole marxist ex-, then presenting it as a midlife upper west side parable (as Pollit did in the last New Yorker) is just distasteful and wrongheaded, whereas Denby's faith in the relevance of his disgusting personality flaws is actually offensive. I mean, there is something unspeakably sad about Pollit's personal disaster (as in an earlier piece where she tries to learn to drive), sad in a voyeuristic way that might legitimately be confused with an important lesson for us all. Denby's need to fabricate even the most banal lesson from his nocturnal transgressions (or, earlier, his allegedly refreshing willingness to announce his own stupidity and go back to college) is too obviously threadbare to inspire anything but faint revulsion.

The morals of this story, then, are twofold. Dear baby boomers:

1. please spare us the personal revelations tarted up as profound insights into the human spirit. Just because you are even more pathetic than you previously suspected doesn't mean you have to share it. If you stay quiet, maybe it will go away.

2. Also, you should probably learn how to use this inter-web if you plan to keep writing about it.

1/26: Now, more unpleasantness at Low Culture.

Wed. Food
In the Chron, an article on the allegedly new ecumenical Mediterrannean somehow fails to quote SF's own Paula Wolfert (or refer to a certain superb Turkish restaurant -- while we're quibbling, can someone explain to me how "persia" is remotely mediterrannean?); Fancy Food Show roundup; and the excellent news that Chez Panisse chef Christopher Lee is turning the execrable Ginger Island into something called Eccolo. I'm so there.

In LA, Russ Parsons loves "off-brand" tartufi, and Emily Green breaks it down

It seems like a ghastly conspiracy. Yet factory farming isn't someone else's fault. It's not only of our making, but it also made us. More than any other factor, cheap food accounts for American prosperity. We spend less of our annual incomes on food than any other nation. Our first case of mad cow disease isn't the result of some evil plot. It's the price of our way of life and it may be telling us that it's time to change.
In NY, more mastery of the obvious:

The real question should be, Is there such a thing as bad bacon?

Rob Hurlbut, the president of Niman Ranch, said it best: "Bacon should be listed as an aphrodisiac."

Vegas comes to the area formerly known as Columbus Circle; and Amanda Hesser is cruelly subjected to $10 wines.

Scientists led by Harry Gilbert at the university of Newcastle in the UK set out to study the survival of the transgene epsps from GM soya in the small intestine of human ileostomists -- people with a colostomy bag.

They found that DNA can survive to the small intestine, and that low frequency gene transfer to the gut microflora of gene fragments may have occurred.

However, the study showed that whole genes were not present in the microflora, and that it was unlikely that there was DNA transfer to the intestinal epithelial cells, and risk to human health was thought to be 'highly unlikely'.

Nature Biotechnology advanced online publication:
The amount of transgene that survived passage through the small bowel varied among individuals, with a maximum of 3.7% recovered at the stoma of one individual. The transgene did not survive passage through the intact gastrointestinal tract of human subjects fed GM soya. Three of seven ileostomists showed evidence of low-frequency gene transfer from GM soya to the microflora of the small bowel before their involvement in these experiments. As this low level of epsps in the intestinal microflora did not increase after consumption of the meal containing GM soya, we conclude that gene transfer did not occur during the feeding experiment.
Let's break this down, because I'm sure the media is going to confuse you about it.

1. First of all, a little DNA isn't going to hurt you. Don't panic. However,

2. The fact that DNA of any kind survives all the way into your small intestine is surprising.

3. But it's not like like it's going to do anything there -- stop freaking out about your frankencolon.

4. What is freaky (aside from #2 above) is the discovery that once that DNA gets into your intestine, it can be "taken up" by some (small fraction of) intestinal microflora. This is huge. Once the bugs get it, there's no telling what will happen to it. It's like a violation of the nonproliferation treaty.

5. The reason this is actually relevant is that some of the the genes you will find in GM crops confer antibiotic resistance. Whoops.

6. Finally, the hidden bombshell:

As this low level of epsps in the intestinal microflora did not increase after consumption of the meal containing GM soya, we conclude that gene transfer did not occur during the feeding experiment.
In other words, this already happened to you.

Update: Alison Abbot has some, uh, deep background in the new Nature:

For better or worse, faeces provide the best window into the microbial life of the human gut....

The average human intestine contains about 1.2 kilograms of bacteria plus a smattering of yeasts. So far, few of these microbes have been characterized or even identified....

the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a research arm of the US military, is sponsoring a project to read all the genomes in the gut ecosystem with the same 'shotgun' method used for the privately funded effort to sequence the human genome.

Bonus hed: Colonic closed shop
Official confirmation of the obvious [Post, report]
Techniques for limiting the spread of genetically engineered salmon, corn and other organisms are still in their infancy, and far more work needs to be done to make sure the new products don't taint the food supply or wipe out important species, a National Research Council panel said yesterday....

The National Research Council panel emphasized that many types of gene-altered organisms pose little or no theoretical risk, and control techniques won't be needed. For the minority of organisms that do pose risks, the panel recommended that companies and laboratories adopt an "integrated confinement system" that includes at least two distinct techniques. The plans should be overseen by regulators in Washington and should factor in the likelihood of human error, the panel said, adding that confinement had sometimes seemed to be an "afterthought" in genetic-engineering research.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

There appears to be some uncertainty about what organic is in Mendocino [Ukiah Daily Journal]
[Peggy G. Lemaux, a University of California Cooperative Extension Specialist from the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology] highlighted the fact that she personally called Ray Green, the Organic Supervisor for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and asked him if an organic farmer would 'automatically lose his accreditation' if his crop became pollinated with pollen from a GMO crop.

The answer was no, Lemaux said, 'as long as an organic operation has not used excluded methods and takes reasonable steps to avoid contact with the products of excluded methods.'

She said Green told her an organic farmer would therefore not lose the ability to market his or her crops.

'You have to believe him,' she said, though she admitted that 'things can exchange' when it comes to GMO and non-GMO crops of the same plant. But if pollination is 'by accident,' Lemaux said the product could still be sold.

But a signed declaration by Thurston Williams, an organic inspector for California Certified Organic Farmers and certification committee chairperson for the Mendocino-Lake Chapter of CCOF, said that in the event he 'became aware of contamination' of organic crops by GMOs he would take samples and order laboratory tests and, if the tests showed contamination, Williams said he 'would recommend to CCOF that the perennial crop be decertified.'"

Mad cow plot thickens
(Former) slaughterhouse employee Dave Louthan reveals mad cow was not a downer
The USDA had us taking brain stem samples from downers and back door cripples only. Since we only had a few walkers on this trailer full of downers, we just killed her along with them. We took a brain sample from her head because the USDA gives up $10 per sample.

If we would have unloaded her in the pens, we would have never caught the BSE. How many other walkers have BSE? We will never know. The USDA only tested the downers and cripples and only at our plant. We had only been taking brain samples for about a month when we found this one.

Furthermore (according to UPI)
Federal agriculture officials did not test any commercial cattle for mad cow disease through the first seven months of 2003 in Washington state -- where the first U.S. case of the disease was detected last month -- according to records obtained by United Press International.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's records of mad cow screenings, conducted on 35,000 animals between 2001 to 2003, also reveal no animals were tested for the past two years at Vern's Moses Lake Meats, the Washington slaughterhouse where the mad cow case was first detected.

In addition, no mad cow tests were conducted during the two-year period at any of the six federally registered slaughterhouses in Washington state. This includes Washington's biggest slaughterhouse, Washington Beef in Toppenish -- the 17th largest in the country, which slaughters 290,000 head per year -- and two facilities in Pasco that belong to Tyson, the largest beef slaughtering company in the United States.

[Both via the invaluable Agribusiness Examiner]
Canada's Supreme Court hears Schmeiser v. Monsanto today. At issue now, more than the specifics of this case,* is the patentability of genetic information in Canada. [Globe & Mail, Bee, background; *cf. this Reuters story that calls Schmeiser's credibility into question.]

Friday, January 16, 2004

Annals of risk analysis
"Mad cow disease was far from his mind. "Well, I haven't won the lottery yet, so I don't figure I'll get that," Moore said as a hot brain sandwich sat on a plate before him.
Even the USDA is working on "good bacteria" to eliminate salmonella in chickens.
A federal judge on Thursday refused to recuse himself from presiding over a price-fixing case involving Monsanto Co., insisting he never worked on a Monsanto case despite being listed as a lawyer representing the company.
[LA Times]

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

"Braising is an art," Sam Hayward tells Nancy Harmon Jenkins at Fore St. South, A/K/A the Times [cf. more elementary instructions here]. Plus the fruit detective explains limes, and introduces us to the Australian finger lime -- you do not want to miss this one. Hesser on politics at the Greenmarket, and Johnny Apple excercises the expense account in NZ.

In the other Times Russ Parsons is on fire, following up his souffle article with gratins. In the Chron, fregola and pho @ home.

New Directions in Xenotransplantation
Pigs grown from fetuses into which human stem cells were injected have surprised scientists by having cells in which the DNA from the two species is mixed at the most intimate level....

The adult pigs that had received human stem cells as fetuses were found to have pig cells, human cells and the hybrid cells in their blood and organs.

'What we found was completely unexpected....' said Jeffrey Platt, director of the Mayo Clinic Transplantation Biology Program.

You don't say? But here's the best part:
Importantly, the team also found that porcine endogenous retrovirus (PERV), which is present in almost all pigs, was also present in the hybrid cells. Previous laboratory work has shown that while PERVs in pig cells cannot infect human cells, those in hybrid cells can. The discovery therefore suggests a serious potential problem for xenotransplantation.
[New Scientist | paper (Ogle, et al., "Spontaneous fusion of cells between species yields transdifferentiation and retroviral transfer in vivo," FASEB Journal Express)] So they literally Ogled the PERVs.]

Further news of the coming dystopia in the form of GM insects may be found here.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Re: that Harvard Center for Risk Analysis mad cow report, thanks to MeFi, here is some very interesting background on the HCRA. Not, perhaps, the most "scientific" source.

Having just found them, it is pretty amazing how much harder it is to track down cerain other relevant reports, like the FDA's updates on compliance with the ruminant feed ban, which are not particularly encouraging even before you consider the methodological problems:

FDA treated all firms with blanks on compliance questions as if they were in compliance, even though some of those records contained inspector comments stating that the firms were not in compliance.
From the key GAO report [63-page pdf] -- there are another 2 pages worth of similarly pathetic problems at pp. 25-6.

Then there are the FSIS reports on Advanced Meat Recovery [1, 2; both pdf], which don't exactly leap off the USDA's special BSE page:

However, about 74 percent (25 of 34) of the establishments tested in the AMR Survey of 2002 had positive laboratory results for C[entral] N[ervous] S[ystem] tissues in their final beef AMR products.
I mean, it's not like fatal crystals of misfolded proteins are eviscerating your brain at this second (probably), but you have to be pretty fucking stupid at this point to hang on to that "world's safest food supply" fairy tale.
Salmon [Newsday]
Joe Lasprogata, director of purchasing at Samuels & Sons Seafood in Philadelphia, a wholesaler that sells to supermarkets and restaurants from New York to Washington, predicted no long-term fallout from the salmon study. 'Our sales will drop 30 to 40 percent over the next few weeks, then people will forget about it,' he said. 'The American public has a very short memory.'
Fair and Balanced
Here's a feel-good story of a Merck scientist who left the glamorous life of New Jersey pharmaceuticals for a nonprofit. [Newark Star Ledger]
The scientist who built Merck's well-regarded vaccine program is leaving the drug maker to join an international effort to develop an AIDS vaccine.

Emilio Emini, a 20-year Merck veteran, will head research at the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, a nonprofit group that is financed by, among others, the World Bank, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and several governments, including the United States'.

Just so I don't seem, you know, biased.
The oft-cited Harvard Center for Risk Analysis report on the unlikeliness of a mad cow epidemic is here.

UPDATE: see above.

Monday, January 12, 2004

Don't forget to read Michael Pollan's latest in the Times magazine before they make you pay for it:
Many of us were surprised to learn that despite the F.D.A.'s 1997 ban on feeding cattle cattle meat and bone meal, feedlots continue to rear these herbivores as cannibals. When young, they routinely receive ''milk replacer'' made from bovine blood; later, their daily ration is apt to contain rendered cattle fat as well as feed made from ground-up pigs and chickens -- pigs and chickens that may themselves have grown up on a diet of ground-up cows. But the grossest feedlot dish we read about in our newspapers over breakfast has to be ''chicken litter,'' the nasty stuff shoveled out of chicken houses -- bedding, feathers and overlooked chicken feed. Since this chicken feed may contain the same bovine meat and bone meal that F.D.A. rules prohibit in cattle feed, those rules are, in effect, all but guaranteed to break themselves. Oh, yes, I forgot to mention one of the ingredients in chicken litter: chicken feces, which the U.S. cattle industry regards as a source of protein.
Also, the crux of the matter: "In Vermont in winter, you spell ''vegetable'' with four letters: r-o-o-t."

Friday, January 09, 2004

Actual numbers from the Science salmon study:
The team took a closer look at PCBs and two other persistent pesticides called dieldrin and toxaphene, all of which have been correlated with risk of liver and other cancers. The researchers used EPA guidelines to calculate the maximum amount of salmon that can be eaten before boosting cancer risk by at least 1 case in 100,000. For the most contaminated fish--from farms in Scotland and the Faroe Islands--the limit came to 55 grams of salmon (uncooked weight) every month, or a quarter of a serving. One half-serving a month of farmed salmon from Canada or Maine adds no significant risk, they say; and double that is acceptable for fish from Chile or the U.S. state of Washington. Some types of wild salmon from Alaska or British Columbia are safe to eat eight times a month.

Although no U.S. government agency has said how much fish one should eat, the American Heart Association recommends 168 to 336 grams per week. Consumption of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish reduces the risk of sudden cardiac death after a heart attack. For people with cardiovascular disease, that benefit outweighs any added cancer risk, Carpenter says.

Sorry, yawn. Perhaps you've also noticed that farmed salmon tastes like shit? [Post article]
The worm turns [NYT]
CHICAGO, Jan. 8 - A federal judge now presiding over a price-fixing case involving the Monsanto Company did not disclose to the parties in the case that in 1997 and 1998 he was listed as a lawyer representing Monsanto in a case that covered some of the same issues, according to lawyers and court documents....

The class-action suit is not Judge Sippel's first case involving Monsanto. Last year, he awarded Monsanto $2.9 million in damages - the maximum allowed - from a Tennessee farmer whom Monsanto had accused of violating its patent [by "saving seed"].

it must be something in the air
The zeitgeist of 2004 already seems so repetive. Oh wait, these must be hot new trends:

#1: anti-reverse wine snobbery: LA Times, Slate. It's like the '80s all over again. Next stop, Dow 30,000!

#2 (yes, that #2): the other page,

I suppose you'll say the synchrony of South Park reruns and certain distasteful revelations of New Yorker "critics" is coincidence, not zeitgeist. Or, at least, so 2003.

Let's get Technical
An excellent antidote to mad cow hysteria is a regular dose of the Journal of Food Protection, which this month features a 10-year study of "Statistical Distributions Describing Microbial Quality of Surfaces and Foods in Food Service Operations." Rutgers alumni will be particularly interested, since they scraped the coliform off your dining hall kitchen. Sadly, I don't have a subscription, but the abstract reveals that "mean counts for foods ranged from 2 to 4 log CFU/g," which should inspire a healthy respect for the human immune system [CFU = colony forming units]. Another article on commercially brined pork loin is sufficient encouragement to do it yourself: "There was an increase in the number of L. monocytogenes in the recirculating brine with time, reaching a maximum of 2.34 log CFU/100 ml after 2.5 h of moisture-enhanced pork production."

C. S. Srinivasan comes to some sobering conclusions in "Concentration in ownership of plant variety rights: some implications for developing countries," Food Policy 28, Issues 5-6 (October-December 2003): 519-546, though he says that the global seed market is not yet concentrated enough to warrant anti-trust concerns.

Carol A. Auer, "Tracking genes from seed to supermarket: techniques and trends," Trends in Plant Science 8, Issue 12 (December 2003): 591-597 is a useful review of how scientists try to estimate gene flow, how they detect modified genes in end-products, and how to improve the situation.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

The next brandstand [Chron/Morford]
In recent years, more children are being named for luxury products. According to the Social Security Administration's database of popular names given to babies, in 2000 there were 353 Lexuses, 298 Armanis, 269 Chanels, 24 Porsches and 3,285 Tiffanys.
If only they were as up-to-date as the original.
I am going to eat so much food this year [Chron]
It's preliminary, because the funding isn't entirely in place, but it appears that Oliveto chef-partner Paul Bertolli will open an artisan Italian- style meat production facility in association with his Oliveto partner Bob Klein. They will make a line of dry-cured sausages and other products like pates and mortadella. Bertolli will remain as chef of the restaurant.
Also in the Chron, Carol Ness encourages you to figure out the Chinese brassicas, but she needs more pictures to really help.

Dont miss the caja china in the Times (also in the lastest Saveur 100), or Charles Perry's history of LA theme restaurants in the LA Times.

Finally, Bruce Cole has a guilty conscience (and I bet a lot of angry left-coast-elitist-pig email).

Le Monde is concerned about "le grand diviseur":
Comme aucun pr�sident avant lui, [Bush] a exacerb� la ligne de fracture am�ricaine�: sur les c�tes et dans les grandes villes, une tradition politique plut�t lib�rale, faite de tol�rance en mati�re de moeurs, o� l'on n'est pas convaincu que le pays incarne forc�ment le Bien et la V�rit�; au sud et � l'int�rieur, une culture politique de plus en plus empreinte de religiosit�, o� les valeurs familiales traditionnelles sont port�es aussi haut qu'un patriotisme hyper-nationaliste, o� la Bible et la banni�re �toil�e tiennent lieu de programme. D'un c�t�, le pays d�mocrate�; de l'autre, le pays r�publicain. Et, entre les deux, de moins en moins de passerelles.
Sounds so creepy in French.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

I told you this was a good thing. The media is starting to grasp some of the underlying absurdities of our industrial beef system. The Times almost brings itself to acknowledge that there is no meaningful difference between Canadian and US beef. Today's Chron discovers that "federal agencies have more power to recall defective toys and auto parts than they do tainted beef." Of course, we're still waiting for someone else to notice this:
When the FDA banned the use of most mammalian protein in cattle feed, it was little more than a symbolic gesture. Fat and blood from cattle could still be fed to cattle, and often, they are the main ingredients in protein supplements for calves. Calf milk replacers often contain dried bovine blood plasma, a reason for concern, as there is experimental proof that prions can be transmitted through blood. Over 300 feed manufactures have been found in violation of the 1997 feed ban for failing to guarantee that ruminant protein is kept out of cattle feed. So how many cattle have been fed parts of other potentially infected cattle? Pigs and poultry can be fed ruminant protein and cattle can be fed the remains of pigs and poultry. Another unsavory practice allows the feeding of poultry manure directly to cattle. Is undigested ruminant protein being fed directly to cattle through this practice? "
Alan Guebert summarizes:
The hard-to-digest fact is, however, that USDA did not begin a serious effort to look for mad cow until Canada discovered its vulnerability to the brain-eating, market-devastating disease May 20, 2003. Despite the Dec. 30 announced plans to step-up mad cow testing, the US barely looked for illness in years past and the new program will do little better....

Also, if USDA is to believed, the estimated 20,000 animals tested in 2003 actually means that only about one in every 10 �downer cows� that are sold into the American food chain last year were tested during the increase.

What about the other nine of every 10? We ate �em. Yum-yum.

(And as long as we're talking about about complacency, how many people do you think bothered to wade through the Times's front-page story on price-fixing by Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred? People are so alienated from the means of agricultural production that the don't even realize that everything they eat is affected by deals like this. Of course, such complacency is easier when the cost of commodity crops is an arbitrary fiction that bears no relationship to the cost of production.)

Monday, January 05, 2004

mo' meat:
"At least 2,000 containers of U.S. beef and beef products are stranded in foreign ports or at sea." [LA Times]

"But even as they announced a voluntary recall by Maxim Market... health officials said they are barred under federal rules from publicly identifying six restaurants in Santa Clara County that also purchased beef products from the same source." [Merc News]

"At least 150,000 downer cattle � those who because of injury or illness cannot walk � were sold annually for human consumption for as much as a few hundred dollars apiece, extra money for cattlemen struggling with low prices." [NYT] -- plus, advanced meat recovery.

Stanley B. Prusiner, the scientist who won a Nobel Prize in 1997 for describing how prions work, did an experiment in which he took muscle from the hindquarters of mice infected with scrapie, the sheep disease. He injected muscle extract into the brains of healthy mice. They became infected.

A second study, published in November in the New England Journal of Medicine, examined tissue from people who had died of spontaneous CJD. A team of Swiss researchers found that PrP prions were detectable in the muscle tissue of one-third of them.

As Al Krebs, an activist who edits the Ag Biz Examiner, told the Voice, "If dairy farmers were getting a fair price for what they produce, they probably wouldn't feel it necessary to squeeze every last penny out of their herd, such as sending 'downers' off to the marketplace." Dairy farmers in the Seattle-Tacoma area are getting as little as $1 per gallon for their milk when it probably costs about $1.40 to produce that gallon, says Krebs, and the farmers may have to carry a debt of anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000 per cow. But, he points out, consumers in the Seattle-Tacoma area were paying, as of last July, $3.52 per gallon for whole milk, the highest prices anywhere in the nation.
Local coverage: Tri-City Herald

and speaking of prions:

Now a team led by Eric Kandel at Columbia University in New York has found that a prion-like protein called CPEB may help nerve cells store memories. A transient electrical signal in the brain might flip CPEB into its prion form, the researchers suggest, helping to create a permanent memory trace.
[nsu | press release (the paper is in Cell)]

Friday, January 02, 2004

some other things
The wonderful Alan Davidson died last month. Grimes reflects formulaically on his tenure -- but he made me hungry. Like everywhere else, China is about to run out of water. Nature Biotechnology reviews Dangerous Liasons:
Ellstrand correctly highlights one characteristic that differentiates today's transgenes from most conventional domestication alleles: dominance. Traditional domestication genes are largely recessive, whereas commercialized transgenes have been universally dominant. Dominance will cause the effects of transgenes to be manifest even when heterozygous, as in progeny of first generation crosses between crops and wild plants. This can enable much more rapid spread of advantageous genes (e.g., herbicide- or pest-resistance genes in some environments), but should equally likely slow the spread of genes for domestication traits that lower fitness within wild populations. Conventionally bred traits are also more commonly part of multigenic systems (several unlinked genes, not one, give the new trait). This makes it more difficult for natural selection to operate on the new alleles.
scrapie: it's what's for dinner
The USDA is so petrified of me that they waited till I left town before announcing our first mad cow "scare." I know you've all been refreshing every 10 minutes to see what I would tell you to do; but you've probably figured out for yourself that the mad cow was a downer Holstein, which means that you should stop eating shitty beef, for starters. Of course, you have to wonder how many cows have been eating shitty beef...

The Post and the Times have special sections up, if you really want to know more. Let me just explain that this is a good thing, because it forced the USDA to implement some much needed regulations that Republicans shot down in Congress just weeks ago.

Of course, USDA reassurances like this:

For more than a decade, the United States has had in place an aggressive surveillance, detection and response program for BSE. The United States has tested over 20,000 head of cattle for BSE in each of the past two years, 47 times the recommended international standard.
ring a little hollow considering this:
There is no routine testing for the 30-million-plus cattle slaughtered each year - and only about 10% of the 200,000 or so downer cattle slaughtered in 2003 were tested, even though an inability to walk is a known symptom of BSE.
[Nature]. Schlosser has many more sordid details in his Times Op-Ed:
Instead of learning from the mistakes of other countries, America now seems to be repeating them. In the past week much has been made of the "firewall" now protecting American cattle from infection with mad cow disease � the ban on feeding rendered cattle meat or beef byproducts to cattle that was imposed by the Food and Drug Administration in 1997. That ban has been cited again and again by Agriculture Department and industry spokesmen as some sort of guarantee that mad cow has not taken hold in the United States. Unfortunately, this firewall may have gaps big enough to let a herd of steer wander through it.

First, the current ban still allows the feeding of cattle blood to young calves � a practice that Stanley Prusiner, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his work on the proteins that cause mad cow disease, calls "a really stupid idea." More important, the ban on feed has hardly been enforced. A 2001 study by the Government Accounting Office found that one-fifth of American feed and rendering companies that handle prohibited material had no systems in place to prevent the contamination of cattle feed. According to the report, more than a quarter of feed manufacturers in Colorado, one of the top beef-producing states, were not even aware of the F.D.A. measures to prevent mad cow disease, four years after their introduction.

Happy New Year.

Update: Shit, Douglas Gantenbein made the same point in Slate on the same day, and he explained it more too. I guess blogging is superfluous.

©2002-2005 by the author