Not so smooth

Tainted peanut butter and our troubled food system

An email from a PR person recently hit my inbox claiming that by high-school graduation, the average American has consumed 1,500 peanut butter sandwiches. I certainly did my bit to hold up the average; to this day I revere the unctuous paste of crushed, roasted peanuts. Now, of course, comes news that a large producer of this protein-packed national treat (widely reviled, for reasons I can't fathom, by people in other nations) has been sending out product that's tainted by a particularly nasty strain of salmonella. The New York Times' Kim Severson has a good piece on how the suspect peanut butter moved through the industrial food system, working its way into products as diverse as Clif Bars and Famous Amos Cookies. News accounts don't typically mention that good old peanut butter has been tainted for a while now -- by sweeteners and dodgy industrial products. Look at Jif (not implicated in the salmonella outbreak), which is owned by Smuckers, which also owns Crisco, Pillsbury, and Hungry Jack. Merely roasting peanuts and pureeing them with a little salt isn't enough for the makers of Jif peanut butter. Its ingredients include: roasted peanuts and sugar, plus "2 PERCENT OR LESS OF: MOLASSES, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED VEGETABLE OIL (SOYBEAN), FULLY HYDROGENATED VEGETABLE OILS (RAPESEED AND SOYBEAN), MONO- AND DIGLYCERIDES AND SALT." Yuck. Come to think of it, the PR person whose email got me thinking about this issue was actually peddling a smart solution: a high-powerd kitchen contraption that allows you to make your own peanut butter (among many other things). As our famously fragmented food-oversight system continues to fail and our industrial-food purveyors continue to pump unnecessary crap into our food, do-it-yourself solutions make more and more sense.

Ruminations on the Obama era, with a side of spicy peanut sauce

A time for reflection (about food, of course). Photo: Caroline Härdter Even those of us in the hectic world of restaurants must occasionally take a …

This week in Seattle

Sustainable coffee, contaminants in the Columbia, and more

Every week, we compile a guide to the greenest goings-on in our hometown. We send it by email -- sign up here! -- and now it's available in Gristmill. (Not in Seattle? Not a problem -- we've got the inside scoop for you out-of-towners, too.) ----- A stimulating exhibitYou may have asked your barista for a half-caf soy latte with sugar-free vanilla syrup, but according to a new exhibit at the Burke Museum, you've really got the whole world in your cup. Opening this weekend, Coffee: The World in Your Cup examines the environmental and social implications of the coffee industry through a variety of media including photographs, live plants, videos, in-gallery tastings, and a wall-to-wall display of coffee bags from local roasters. On Saturday, sip coffee from local roasters while hearing from caffeine-bean experts. Return Sunday for formal coffee cuppings that will teach you how to appreciate the variety of flavors and aromas in each mug. Plan it: The Burke Museum is open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Special events Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 24-25, begin at 10 a.m. and continue throughout the day. See schedule for details.Map it: The Burke Museum, 17th Ave. N.E. and N.E. 45th St., Seattle, Wash.Not in Seattle? Not a problem: Though it's at the Burke until June 7, this is a traveling exhibit that could be hitting a cultural museum near you. Until then, read up on which fair-trade, organic, shade-grown Central American coffee got highest praise from Grist Food Editor Tom Philpott. Read on for more Seattle news ...

Links to enviro news and more

Change we can believe in at USDA?

All eyes on ag chief Vilsack's undersecretary pick

There have been whispers recently from Washington, D.C., that indicate that the wheels of change are grinding to a halt even before the Inauguration of our next President takes place. The recent nomination of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Ag was a disappointment to many in the sustainable ag and family farm community because of Vilsack's close relationship with agribusiness and his penchant for promoting biotech and corn-based ethanol. Despite some positive comments during his confirmation hearing regarding nutrition, local foods and climate change, many in the sustainable ag community remain skeptical, while some remain hopeful. I've written previously, as have others, to place Tom's record in context; that he was the first Democratic governor of Iowa in 40 years and that during his governorship he had to contend with a Republican House and Senate. This will not be the case when he heads the USDA with solid majorities in Congress, a call for "change in America" and support from the White House. There will be no one to blame for failing to put forward a progressive agenda for America's food and farm future.

Food security and global warming: Monsanto versus organic

Organic farming beats genetically engineered corn as response to rising global temperatures

This week Science published research ($ub. req'd) detailing the vast, global food-security implications of warming temperatures. The colored graphics are nothing short of terrifying when you realize the blotches of red and orange covering the better part of the globe indicate significantly warmer summers in coming decades. The implications of the article are clear -- we need to be utilizing agricultural methods and crops that can withstand the potential myriad impacts of global climate change, especially warmer temperatures. The article significantly notes, "The probability exceeds 90 percent that by the end of the century, the summer average temperature will exceed the hottest summer on record throughout the tropics and subtropics. Because these regions are home to about half of the world's population, the human consequences of global climate change could be enormous." Whether you believe global warming is part of a "natural cycle" or a man-made phenomenon is irrelevant. The bottom line is that our earth is rapidly warming, and this is going to drastically affect our food supply. We must undertake both the enormous task of reducing our carbon emissions now to avert the worst, while at the same time adapting our society to the vast and multitudinous effects of unavoidable global climate change. Failing to do either will, as the Science article indicates, have dire effects on a large portion of our world's population. Determining the best course of action for ensuring food security in the face of global climate change remains a challenging task. Recognizing that climate change is slated to affect developing countries and small-scale farmers the most is a crucial point. Such understanding enables people to realize that viable solutions must be accessible, affordable, and relevant to the billions of small-scale farmers in the developing world. Unfortunately, it appears that some of the solutions on the table fail to meet these criteria. Last week, Monsanto made a big public relations splash by filing documents with the FDA regarding a drought-tolerant GM corn variety it is developing with a German company, BASF. Monsanto claims that in field trials, the corn got 6-10 percent higher yields in drought-prone areas last year, but the release is extremely short on details. Regardless of the reality, Monsanto is presenting the corn as a way to help improve on-farm productivity in other parts of the world, notably Africa. Yet, absent from the media hype were the many technical and social problems with Monsanto's corn.

Choice nuggets

Interesting food articles from around the web

My browser's blowing up again with interesting tidbits from around the web. Time to serve up another platter of choice nuggets. • I've been obsessing over a New York Times blog post on "The 11 Best Foods You Aren't Eating," which originally ran way back in June but was recently revived because of its popularity. The choices have been declared by nutritionist Jonny Bowden as packed with nutrients. They're also all extremely flavorful, and (with one exception) economical. Most of them carry a kind of unearned stigma. Beets, for example, are one of our most glorious vegetables, but their reputation has been ruined by deplorable canned versions that prevailed in the '70s. Why don't Americans revere cabbage? I can't imagine a better way to consume something fresh and crunchy in the winter than a red-cabbage salad, dressed simply with lemon juice and olive oil. Canned sardines? People tend to recoil from this nutrient-dense, abundant, and, yes, delicious fish. I used to despise them, too; now I can't remember why. (Check out this recipe I conjured up for pasta with sardines a few years back.) And prunes (delicately called in the article "dried plums")? Fantastic -- and unjustly scorned. In an ideal world, this sort of list would be getting hung up in school-cafeteria kitchens across the land, where skilled cooks would debate about how best to teach children to love them. In our own fallen world, school-cafeteria kitchens barely exist (they been replaced by reheating centers for churning out Tyson chicken nuggets), and skilled cooks have long since been sent packing.

Iffy pop

Why conventional popcorn sucks, and what you can do about it

Dear Lou, What about popcorn? Is it safe, healthy, and free of pesticides? What exactly is in the artificial butter flavor? Thanks,Greenee Trailer Trash from Mississippi

Maintaining healthy wild-oyster beds isn't quite as easy as oyster pie

Pearl, interrupted. I have long been partial to oysters. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I came to understand the environmental challenges …