Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Raw Cheese, Please.

I didn’t like milk at all as a child. We drank only watery, flavorless, fat free milk, and that probably had a lot to do with my distaste. Cheese on the other hand, that delicious and creamy milk product, has always been a favorite. I would always head to the ‘specialty cheese’ section at the grocery store (a kid with a taste for…Mozzarella, Brie and Camembert), but my life really changed when I discovered farmstead cheese…straight from the source.

These cheeses are fantastic not only for their taste, but for what they represent: the all out struggle to survive as a farmer. That may sound like an outlandish statement, but it’s true. Many dairymen and women (of cows, sheep and goats) have turned to making artisan, farmstead cheese when selling plain ol’ milk no longer pays the bills. And really these days, selling plain ol’ milk rarely pays the bills for small-scale, pasture based dairy farms. So farmers turn to cheese, a historic method of milk preservation, to increase the value of the milk they produce and in return the income on the farm. It's a delicious win-win.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows raw milk to be used in cheese production for any cheese aged over 60 days. Raw milk, milk that has not been pasteurized or heated to kill pathogens, is highly regulated (if not banned) in its liquid form in most states due to 'health hazards'. It is a contentious issue across the United States, but we’ll save the whole debate for another day. For now, suffice it to say that the allowance of raw milk for aged cheese is a lucky loophole for small cheese producers, based on the idea that aging cheese for that duration will minimize pathogen risk. Lucky on two fronts: small farmers don’t have to invest in infrastructure to pasteurize the milk produced from their own herd before making cheese AND the final cheese product is of a much richer and distinct taste.

Many of these small farmers who make farmstead cheese rely solely on old-world techniques, the fresh, raw milk from their herd and small equipment to produce the award winning cheeses that support their farm. But what if the rules of the game changed?

That just may be the case as the FDA is reconsidering the rules for use of raw milk in cheese making after multiple food safety scares and recalls in the past year. The results aren’t in yet, but new regulations may require raw milk cheeses to be aged for at least ninety days all the way to banning the use of raw milk in cheese all together. The New York Times outlines the argument well, but neglect to address the economic effects the ban may have on farmers. Yet again, regulators are faced with the delicate balance of public health versus the absolute deliciousness of this cheese with the economic impact on small farmers if these regulations change.

In this case, small farmers have enough on their plate in running a sanitary, efficient and delicious small dairy and don’t need another regulation limiting their ability to be financially viable. And consumers, us adult supporters of raw milk cheeses…we don’t have enough options on our plate. So please FDA, please don’t take away our raw milk cheese.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Whole Foods Steps Up Animal Welfare...

Whole Foods is rolling out a new marketing scheme costumed as an animal welfare rating system. This consumer guidance is supposed to promote “transparency” about how farm animals are raised before ending up in the Whole Foods meat case. Developed by Global Animal Partnership, this system highlights which “step” in the “5 Step Program” for which a meat product qualifies. The horribly non-descript program title, The Five Step Program, aims to quantify a scale of practices (Steps 1 – Step 5+) farmers can employ to ‘improve’ animal welfare on their farm.

Developed by Whole Foods and organizations like the Humane Society of the United States, this rating system has a sole focus on how well the animal was treated when they were raised…but what value does that add for the consumer? For a consumer who is dedicated to animal welfare, maybe this rating system will have meaning. But for the consumer who truly cares about the bigger picture of 'sustainable' agriculture, knowing their farmer and treating the soil well, this labeling system doesn’t mean much. And for the eager, rookie Whole Foods shopper looking for guidance from product labels…this is just another opportunity to greenwash large-scale agriculture and make these products look better than they are.

Here are The Five Steps (with a pinch of cynicism on the side)

Step 1: No Crates. No Cages. No Crowding.
Well, that is a good first step, isn’t it? Let’s be a little more specific though. Are they referring to no cages in an indoor egg laying facility or a free-love pasture based experience? Often pasture-raised broilers (chickens raised for meat) are raised in large outdoor pens, necessarily “caged off” from the elements and predators. Sure, a good first step…but wouldn’t we expect a product at WF to already meet this standard? Even better, this Step is labeled with the color orange - not the screaming STOP! of red - undoubtedly and industry friendly color choice.

Step 2: Enriched Environment?
Let’s be a little bit more specific about what environment is ‘enriched’. This only refers to the living space of the animal being raised. The WF website has simplified this to “a bale of straw for chickens to hide behind and climb on, a bowling ball for pigs to manipulate and shove around, or a few sturdy objects for cattle to rub against when they need a good scratch.” I’m all for providing animals with a more hospitable living environment, but I am equally (if not more so) concerned about proper and effective stewardship of the physical environment, like soil and water. Unfortunately, the simple title of this Step easily misconstrues an enriched physical environment which is lacking entirely from this Five Step Program.

Step 3: Enhanced Outdoor Access.
Wow! This sounds a lot like the debate about outdoor access in the National Organic Standards. Could it be that other ‘consumer education systems’ are addressing these issues, or at least trying to. Do we need another system?

Step 4: Pasture Centered
See Step 3 above, and add a little confusion.

Step 5: Animal Centered: All physical alterations prohibited
There’s a reason certain ‘physical alterations’ take place, and not all are bad. Many, like tail docking in sheep, are performed for long term animal health, sanitation and safety of the animal and done within one day of birth. This step is a bit over-reaching, and may not serve farmers in the long-run. Should this really be toward the top of the goals?

Step 5+: Animal Centered: Entire life on same farm.
Baby chicks are often sent through the mail to farms in the first 1-3 days after hatching, as hatching your own on the farm is hardly reliable. Cow-calf farms exist solely to focus on the birth and rearing of calves. New farmer often purchase young animals (sheep, goats, pigs) to get experience in raising animals before beginning to breed them. Sure, transporting animals can be traumatic for animals and humans alike. A one-farm lifespan is a humane opportunity to offer for an animal, but as the highest step in this system, what is it conveying to the consumer? The Global Animal Partnership definition of “entire life” also includes slaughter. On-farm slaughter opportunities are great, but very hard to come by. With about only 10 mobile red-meat processing facilities and challenging USDA and state regulations for on-site processing of poultry…this is a hard step to enact.

So where does that lead us? In my opinion, Global Animal Partnership’s Five Step Program is a well-crafted scheme to fool consumers into thinking there is a value-added component to the semi-industrial meat they are buying…while also soothing animal welfare advocates that improvements can be made in the industrial food system. There is an abundance of labeling and certification schemes with dubious interpretations...here's one more. Although I applaud their step system that encourages farmers to move in the 'right direction', the only true motivation will be increased revenue. So Whole Foods must be providing an adequate financial incentive (read: pay farmers a higher price for their meat) to implement these often more expensive practices.

Bottom line? The best step is to support the kind of agriculture where you can meet your farmer and your food…to see just how well they are treated in the field.

Monday, February 14, 2011

And it all comes tumbling down...

In Connecticut alone, 136 barns and farm buildings have come crashing down this winter due to unmanageable snow loads. That’s a big number. Potentially a record, it is due to this season’s frequent snows and lack of thaws. This number is striking because it only represents one state and because each collapse represents one farm, one small business or one family that is now dealing with the tragedy and headache associated with a downed facility. First the realization, second the rescue of trapped staff or livestock, third the upheaval of another economic wrench thrown into an already challenging agricultural livelihood.

On February 7, amidst the collective winter snowfall, Jon’s barn collapsed: again. Upon reading this news, the enormity of this happening all over the northeast hit me. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to watch your own barn, newly built, fall to the ground. Especially knowing that your dear crew member and entire dairy herd are under its roof. It must be heart breaking.

My heart hurt when I read of the collapse on the Taylor Farm website. In Jon’s case, his barn collapsed before, exactly two years ago, under the heavy weight of snow. Devastated the first time, he rebuilt the barn and continued to tend to his dairy herd and his farmstead cheese, while raising three daughters and serving as an active member of his community. The rebuilt structure, bearing a proud "BARN AGAIN" sign after it's revival, was a beautiful, simple, free stall barn. Almost as tall as the silos below, and 50 yards long, the barn housed the entire herd of 50+ Jersey and Holstein cows and a handful of pigs. It was larger than the previous barn, part of a planned herd expansion, a big investment. Flanked by farm equipment, trucks, the half-functioning manure spreader and tractors, the barn flanked the small farm road leading out to the pasture. It was hard to see it all tumbled to the ground. 

Knowing Jon, as a visitor to his farm and as a partner for an academic project, I can attest to his gregarious, welcoming and persistent nature. And although no one deserves tragedy, it’s hard to see it befall someone who has been working so hard and is so good-natured. But isn’t that the description of all the small farmers to work so diligently to grow and raise the food we depend on each day?

So here’s a little shout out, an extra dose of gratitude for those farmers that have lost barns, greenhouses and sheds. Good luck as you go about tending to livestock, re-ordering lost feed and supplies and getting back to ‘normal’.

Taylor Farm Website

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


This is how the conversation usually goes…

Dad: “Did you hear the government wants to regulate _______ in the food system?”

Me: “Yup. Whaddya think?”

Dad: “No way. Too much government interference.”

Me: “I see. Do you think that there might be an important underlying factor in why they are trying to regulate this?”

Dad: “Sure. But it’s a slippery slope. People should be personally responsible for their own well-being and education.” (-or- “Let the market decide”. Depending on the topic).

Me: (As eager daughter waiting to best her father in political debate…some sort of out pouring of nutrition or agriculture or food facts followed by…) “But what about those things that people just don’t know!”

The topics have covered milk support pricing and organics to the National School Lunch Program. In politically oriented debates about food and agricultural regulation, we excel at understanding where the other person is coming from. Or at least, we can predict and prepare. In December, we had this debate about salt. Not just about salt, but about government regulations to reduce the salt content of processed foods available for sale.

His argument: How much is the government going to regulate? People should just be educated on salt intake and make the best decisions for themselves.

Usually I agree with him on this point. People should be responsible for making the best decisions for their health and well-being. He and I both support education and awareness campaigns for health and nutrition topics. But in the case of sodium, consumer education is not enough.

Salt consumption in the US is trending up. Many of us have been successfully educated to avoid consuming excess salt by minimizing salt added when cooking at home, minimizing salt added to the plate served to us and avoiding the culprit ‘salty foods’ like the salted nuts at the Super Bowl party, an otherwise healthy salted pretzel snack and delicious serving of salted french fries or even a cube of cheese. In other words, we have become good at avoiding the sodium we add to food or the sodium we can see.

The problem here? Sodium lurks, in alarming quantities, in unassuming processed foods that don’t taste salty. In other words, even well-intended folks may be getting too much sodium from the foods they would least expect and in much higher quantities than most of us need.

Beyond that, it’s hard to visualize just how much sodium each of us needs each day. The newly released Dietary Guidelines for America 2010 recommends less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day…unless you are “over 51 or those of any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease.” These vulnerable populations are recommended less than 1500 mg of sodium per day.

I decided I would poll my Dad (a well-educated and aware consumer) for a small telephone survey.

Me: “Hi Dad. Do you know how much sodium you should have each day?”

Dad: “Numbers, Hmm. 18-22 grams. Those are the numbers that come to mind.”

Me: “Do you know how much that is, like if you were to cook with it?”

Dad: “Like a measurement unit? I have no idea.”

Me: “Well, one teaspoon is about 2,325 milligrams.”

Dad: “How much air should you have in your tires?”

Me: "Thanks Dad."

We had a lovely chat. I informed my Dad that since he’s over 51, he should be getting about 1500 milligrams per day, way less than a teaspoon. I also told him that my tires should be inflated to 46 psi. He told me my mom and he don’t add any salt to the food they cook at home in their attempts to be salt conscious. We both got curious to check our pantries and read some Nutrition Facts labels for hidden sodium content.

But it proves a point for recommended levels of any nutrient. All the smartest people in the world can set all the most up-to-date standards…but this information has to be accessible to the consumer in an understandable format.

However, salt may require a little something more than an educational campaign, considering that we can’t use our taste buds to accurately judge the sodium content of processed foods. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) argues in Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States that this extra, unrecognized salt consumption from processed foods poses a health threat. And this is precisely the argument for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to establish guidelines for allowable salt content of processed foods.

We are accustomed to salt, we eat it without realizing it, and it is unhealthy. Therefore, because of this asymmetry of information, some regulation needs to be established to protect consumers. Fair enough. This regulation will affect all producers equally, can work to decrease sodium levels in processed foods and reduce overall sodium consumption. This may be the long arm of government regulation reaching in to help the hapless American consumer…but it can counteract long term health costs and possibly save lives. Just take it as a grain of salt.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Can Gym-Pact Impact?

Did you make a New Year’s Resolution? Did your enthusiastic promise to yourself involve exercising more? Are you finding your good intentions out the window on this first day of February?

Not to worry. Gym-Pact can help.

Well, maybe. Gym-Pact offers the motivationally challenged workout hopeful an extra kick of incentive: by charging a fine when you don’t use your gym membership. Not to worry, this is not a renegade organization out to guilt everyone with a gym membership into more hours on the treadmill and more visits with the bench-press bar. Instead, Gym-pact is a new social enterprise that hopes to support the exercise goals of Bostonians. Gym-Pact offers discounted gym membership rates, along with a little guilt trip, in exchange for your commitment to use the gym a certain number of days per week. The guilt trip comes in as a “motivational fee” is assessed to you (at rate you set, the lowest option at $10) for each gym session you miss in a week.

The aim of Gym-Pact is to help keep people motivated to use their gym memberships, using a financial disincentive when you miss a session. But will this really work? And will it work in the long run? Maybe this will be effective for a partially motivated individual with a gym membership. Possibly someone who needs a tap on the shoulder to help stick to their fitness goals. Definitely someone who is motivated by the idea of forfeiting their precious dollars. This all boils down to a limited portion of those already attending the gym, and maybe a few folks who think they can take advantage of a reduced-cost gym membership by never, never-ever missing a workout.

There is no proof that technique is effective for increasing gym usage and continuation of fitness goals. Do we need a new quick-fix exercise booster when there is already proof of other methods that do work: like mentorship, attending group exercise classes, partnering with a workout buddy and the use of support groups. A 2001 study of motivations for maintaining exercise among African American women demonstrated that the positive feelings of exercise and weight loss, having a workout buddy and improved health were the main reasons women continued to exercise. This explains the success of the low-cost Healthworks at Codman Square, a non-profit gym that encourages women to exercise by promoting a friendly, accessible environment; a boatload of support services like childcare and nutrition counseling; and a very low monthly membership fee.

I support any method that gets people sticking to their wellness goals, whatever those goals might be. And if this catchy new social enterprise can help people get sweaty, then more power to it. I'd like to see more strides made in increasing free and low-cost exercise, wellness and physical activity opportunities to those who can't even begin to imagine paying a monthly gym membership fee, nonetheless a "motivational fee" for a missed day at the gym. Maybe the next step is for Gym-Pact to apply the ‘motivational fees’ they collect to help support exercise incentives for those who can’t afford a gym membership at all.