Category Archives: food politics

Review: Sorting the Beef from the Bull

Sorting the Beef from the Bull. The Science of Food Fraud Forensics.  Richard Evershed and Nicola Temple. Bloomsbury, 2016.

Media of Sorting the Beef from the Bull

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

Evershed, Richard and Nicola Temple (2016) Sorting the Beef from the Bull. The Science of Food Fraud Forensics.  New York: Bloomsbury Sigma.

This book systematically covers the categories of food fraud that pervade global food systems and trade.  It carefully explains the biology, chemistry, and physics of food, as well as the tools that have been constructed to test authenticity of species, political-geographic origin places, and toxic dangers of additives. These later include dyes and preservatives, and substances and substitutions added to extend the quantities of shelf lives of particular products.  The first three chapters introduce “Food Fraud 101” and the major categories of falsification, with special emphasis on eggs and poultry.  The next six chapters cover specific adulterations and efforts to detect them in the major food categories: fish, red meat, dairy, spices and condiments, beverages, fruits and vegetables.  There is plenty of fraud to go around with values-based items (organic, ethically sourced) which may not originate where their values claim they do. The final chapter, “thoughts for digestion” reviews main points and technologies available or in the pipe-line for individual consumer, food-processor, retailer, or other institutional detection of misrepresentations.  This chapter also summarizes guidelines for real food sourcing that are quite similar to Michael Pollan’s principles: select whole rather than processed foods, sourced locally or from trusted sources, thereby shortening the food chain with its possibilities of fraud.  Be skeptical of deals that are too good to be true; they usually involve deceptions.  Be willing to take the time and pay a fair price to get the story and connect with the people behind the foods you eat.

These chapters are packed with food biochemistry and clear explanations of the sleuth work that goes into detecting fraud and its harms.  There is particular attention to adulterations that produce life-threatening or -ending allergens, such as peanut or dairy that purposely or inadvertently have been added to products that should not contain them.  The major motivation is greed, although some shelf-life expanding technologies claim they are fighting world hunger and local food insecurity, and reducing waste.  Cases of Chinese, then Indian and Bangladeshi adulterators are most frequently cited, but there are plenty of U.S. and European culprits or co-conspirators eager to profit from food falsification, even where this process introduces human health risks.  There are also some simple guidelines to detecting common frauds in common foods.  Individuals can use their senses (smell, taste, touch, visual observation of cooking properties) to detect products that are not what they claim.  E.g., does the spice mixture in the package or the coffee or tea smell and behave the way it is supposed to? Does the fish fillet unexpectedly fall apart (in which case it is probably a cheaper species, not pricey cod)? Does the unbelievably cheap egg have a membrane inside the shell? If not it is a counterfeit, which in quantity yields huge criminal profits for the manufacturers who operate in many countries.

Surprisingly, the EU up to the time of publication had no official definition of food fraud, in contrast to the US, which defines “the deliberate and intentional substitution, addition, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients, or food packaging; or false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain” (cited on p.262).  Throughout the substantive, food-category based chapters, the authors cite legal cases but bemoan the lack of inspection and regulators, even where the legal framework is in place.  They should also bemoan the lack of time dedicated to food shopping and eating, the “convenience” factor that expands food chains and distances consumers from the sources of their food.  Such distancing layers risks of fraud and harms at every level, and also reduces the consumer’s pleasure, knowledge, and connections to food and to other human beings all along the food chain.  Thin and incomplete government or food-industry oversight of food quality and truth, combined with consumers’ appreciation of convenience foods, are challenges unlikely to be resolved by greater knowledge in food forensics.  The outstanding technical perspectives also raise additional conflicts in values.  Given the emphasis on reducing food waste, should we, the consumers, prefer the apple that rots? Or the apple that, with the application of food technology, stays or appears to stay fresh an unnaturally long period of time? In a world of industrialized foods, can individuals be trained to prefer a natural strawberry to the industrialized fake flavor?

You can use the examples in discussions of traceability, hazard analysis, biochemical and flavor diversity in foods, and other food-system topics.  The book also contains a good refresher course on basic food biochemistry, with helpful chapter by chapter summaries of the major chemical bonds and reactions in an appendix.

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Blackness, Food, and State-Sanctioned Violence

Ashanté M. Reese, PhD

I began research on food access in Washington, D.C., knowing that I wanted to learn about a) what people were eating b) where they were shopping, and c) how (if at all) they engaged urban agriculture movements.

During my first interview, a participant made it clear that a) she did not want to talk about any of those things right away, b) she would get to them when she was ready, and c) there were other more pressing things I needed to know so that I could understand her food choices. That first interview sent me back to the drawing board to reconsider how I conceptualized the study of food.  After conducting 40+ interviews with D.C. residents (and another 40 interviews with Baltimore residents for a separate project), I now realize that most of my participants talked about, theorized, and understood their lives at the intersections of multiple forms of state-sanctioned violence. I came to them wanting to discuss food access. They came to me with stories about their lives, the histories of their neighborhoods, gentrification, policing, and other black people they didn’t know but to whom they felt a connectedness. Food, the subject that brought us to the table, provided a framework for discussing some of the precarious elements of navigating spaces in black bodies.

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Photo taken at a protest/rally in Ferguson, MO. April 2015

In the most terrifying, in your face moments, we watch Black Death on repeat as video after video captures unarmed black people being shot down in the streets by officers of the state. It is heartbreaking and sometimes terrifying to watch. Yet, as I learned from my research participants, these murders occur within a larger frame of the everydayness of violence they witnessed or experienced. State-sanctioned violence not only shows up in public murders and the collective trauma in their aftermaths but also in the ways in which people experience (and navigate) inequalities on a daily basis that provides context for the food research we conduct. We need only examine the systematic ways Black farmers were denied access to federal funding that could have made a difference in their abilities to compete in the transitions toward agribusiness. Or the ways federal and state governments co-opted the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children program while at the same time blacklisting, criminalizing, and surveilling the Panthers themselves.

State-sanctioned violence normalizes death and inequalities through the slow but steady unraveling of individuals’ character in the moments immediately following their public executions, the decline of publically available resources, and through the now colloquial understanding of “food deserts” that points to outcomes (lack of food access, individual choice, etc.) but often obscures processes (systematic racism, increased suburbanization, etc.).  Though it is easy to compartmentalize, these different forms of violence  stem from shared roots that attempt to curtail black mobility in and access to public space.  Some are very public, instantaneous deaths at the hands of police like those of Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and as of today, Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott. These are the spectacular, shocking deaths (although, they are happening often enough to question if they are as shocking as they were). Others are slow, walking, everyday deaths: the lack of access to healthy, affordable foods; the continuous expansion of multinational food corporations that not only control access but also wages of folks who produce food; the cutting (and erasure) of social services.

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Photo taken at a protest/rally in Ferguson, MO. April 2015

I see the critical examination of these intersections as part of the work Sidney Mintz envisioned when he challenged food anthropologists to engage with–not run away from–the power structures that shape access, tastes, and perceptions. The worlds in which we live–the worlds in which my predominantly Black research participants, friends, and I live–are circumscribed by power dynamics that shape not only food access but also experiences with other forms of state-sanctioned violence that are sometimes literally a matter of life or death.

 

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Slow Fish Report: On Value Chains, the Privatization of the Seas, and the Food Movement

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

Last month I wrote about the existence of the food movement, which a Washington Post writer had suggested did not really exist. I can now confirm that the movement exists. I saw it myself.

A few weeks ago, I participated in “Slow Fish,” a conference organized by Slow Food. This had all the trappings of a movement. My name tag said that I was a “delegate,” as if I was attending some sort of seafood United Nations. It sort of felt like that, or perhaps like a revolutionary assembly of food activists. Slow Fish takes place every two years, historically in Genoa. This year was the first time the event was held in North America. Participants, including fishers, fish mongers, fish transporters, fish processors, chefs, activists, scientists, and students came from all over the world, but the majority seemed to be from the U.S. and Canada. They were there to discuss the state of the world’s fish and fisheries, as well as the environmental, economic, political, and cultural context that turns fish into food for millions of people.

I did not think of myself as any kind of fish expert going in, however I live in New Orleans, where fish and seafood are central to our culinary life. One of our local restaurants has the slogan “friends don’t let friends eat frozen fish” and devotion to local seafood is serious.

Fish Devotion, New Orleans

Fish Devotion, New Orleans

Of course, I also know that our local fishing industry has been in trouble for a long time. Competition from imports, conflicts over environmental regulations, disasters like the 2010 BP spill, coastal erosion, and more are making it increasingly difficult for fishing families to make a living. We don’t like to acknowledge it, but even in New Orleans, there are restaurants and grocery stores that sell mostly imported seafood.

These contradictions are probably a good reason for holding Slow Fish here. But it is easy to get caught up in our local debates and to lose sight of how the issues we confront are similar to problems elsewhere. I went to the event in search of the kind of global perspective that Slow Food could provide.

That slogan about friends and frozen fish, for instance, could probably use some revising. The point, for the restaurant that uses it, is to assert the value of eating local fish. So I was surprised to hear Slow Fish delegates argue for eating fish—often frozen—from hundreds of miles away. This was part of a discussion of “value chains,” a concept used to focus attention on the entire process of catching and distributing fish. My relationship with a fisher at the Crescent City Farmer’s Market means that I can be relatively certain of the origins and quality of the seafood I purchase there. I can also assume that the fishing family I buy from is receiving most of the revenue from my purchase. That relationship is a value chain, albeit a rather short one, in which I can have confidence because the participants—the fishing family, the market managers, and, of course, me—are all people I trust. But these chains can be longer, with processors, distributors, and retailers between the fishers and the customers. The value chain, however, only works as long as information and relationships involve actual people. Rather than put one’s confidence in the supposed efficiencies of the anonymous market, the value chain concept suggests that we should only trust seafood that comes from and through people we trust, people who can assure that the food meets the Slow Food standards of “good, clean, and fair.” This emphasis on the relationships between people, rather than on the product, makes perfect sense from an anthropological perspective. And hearing the discussion at Slow Fish reminded me of related anthropological research, perhaps most notably Susan Andreatta, Barry Nash, and Gretchen Bath Martin’s work on seafood distribution in North Carolina.

Along with rethinking distribution, Slow Fish challenged my ideas about the source of fish—the sea itself. I had long assumed that the world’s oceans were open territory, where fishers roamed more or less at will in search of their catch, limited mostly by the territorial rules of governments and environmental regulations designed to preserve fisheries. It turns out, however, that some of those regulations have led to a kind of privatization of the seas, through which a combination of corporations and environmental organizations have managed to reshape regulation and control of fisheries. Some of the most intense discussions at Slow Fish focused on “catch share” programs. Although details seem to vary, the central characteristic of these programs is the regulation of fisheries by establishing quotas for different species, which are divided up among fishers, boats, or organizations (another term for this is “individual fishing quotas”), who can then catch the species. These systems are often represented as an efficient way to protect fisheries while also limiting some of the more dangerous aspects of commercial fishing. Catch shares are sometimes available for sale, lease, or trade, so fishers may opt to sell their rights and temporarily or permanently leave the business. Environmental organizations, like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy, are supporters of catch share programs, as are promoters of free market solutions for social issues, who see this as a way to bring market efficiencies to an environmental problem. NPR’s show “Planet Money” did a piece in 2015 that explains some of the reasons why people may support these programs.

Among the fishers at Slow Fish, however, opposition to catch share programs was fierce. Criticism focused on the idea that catch shares were leading to a sharp reduction in the number of people who could make a living fishing. They insist that this market-oriented model is leading to a corporate takeover of the seas. Instead of individual fishers or boat owners each fishing a share, the shares have, in some fisheries, been bought up by owners of fishing fleets, or by corporations. In some cases, fishers are hired to fish leases for those corporations, creating what was called a kind of fishing “serfdom” at Slow Fish. There have been some recent scandals involving owners of large numbers of catch shares. The displacement of local fishers, the transformation of fishers from small business owners into fishing sharecroppers or deckhands on corporate boats, and the disruption of efforts to eliminate bycatch (species that are caught accidentally, often perishing before they can be returned to the sea) were among the many questions raised about catch share programs. This article from The Bay Citizen provides a detailed analysis of the programs and of the criticism leveled at them (and cites anthropologists Carolyn Creed and Bonnie McCay, who have published work related to these issues).

One of the main themes at Slow Fish was the idea that small scale fishers, processors, and distributors should be able to make a living. Establishing value chains was presented as one way to achieve this goal, while resisting the privatization of the seas was another. It is worth noting that the fishers and activists at Slow Fish did not oppose all regulation or even all the catch share programs. Rather, they were more concerned with making sure that such programs focused on creating situations that allowed a human—as opposed to corporate—scaled commercial fishing industry to thrive.

There were, of course, many other issues discussed and questions raised at Slow Fish, more than I can account for here. Fish farming, aquaponics, fishing gear and related regulations, conflicts with sport fishers, efforts to popularize so-called trash fish, stories of fishing families, fish processing, fish politics, etc., were all on the program. On some deep level, of course, the event was not really about fish—it was about humanizing the relationships between producers and consumers of food in ways that challenge a system that is otherwise dominated by anonymous markets and large corporations. And this, it should be clear, is what a food movement looks like.

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CFP: Conference on Democratizing Food Governance

Call for papers for a conference that may be of interest to FoodAnthropology readers:

CALL FOR PAPERS: Conference on Democratizing Food Governance, Rome, 14 October 2016

Sponsored by The American University of Rome, University College Cork, University of Naples Federico II, and the University of Vermont.

Some scholars believe that local food systems do not represent a serious threat to the globalization of food chains and may even be consistent with it. Others see them as encapsulating the potential for a radical transformation of the global food system, being not just the result of a commodity-based agriculture sector but rather expressions of processes of change and new forms of politics with regard to sustainability and consumption.

The Conference intends to promote a reflection on the new forms of partnership and civic engagement emerging around food as well as on the creation of public policy spaces at different scales where various types of actors may negotiate, deliberate and make decisions with the goal of enhancing the sustainable and democratic character of the food system.

Key note speakers: Frank Baber, University of California and Terry Marsden, Cardiff University.

For further information please visit www.aur.edu/foodgovernance or contact Maria Grazia Quieti, Ph.D., Director, MA in Food Studies, The American University of Rome.

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The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the obfuscation of measurement

Andrea Wiley
Indiana University

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) were finally released on January 7 2016 to the Secretaries of the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture (USDA).  The long delay between the DGA Advisory Committee Scientific Report completion (February 2015), the end of the public comment period (May 2015), and the announcement of the 2015 DGAs in January 2016 suggests a protracted period of lobbying by various food industries that ultimately produced particularly vague and timid DGAs that state that American diets need only be “nudged” by small “shifts.”  Most of the press has been appropriately cynical about these, and there is no need to belabor the role of food industry lobbyists and their insidious negative impact on the process of developing useful guidance and related policies that could actually enhance the health of Americans.  Most notably, the Scientific Report had highlighted sustainability as an important consideration for dietary guidance for the first time, and it specifically recommended that Americans reduce their consumption of red and processed meats.  Neither made it into the DGAs.

Instead, the 5 key messages of the 2015 DGAs are:

  • Follow a healthy eating pattern across the life span.
  • Focus on variety, nutrient density, and amount.
  • Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium intake.
  • Shift to healthier food and beverage choices.
  • Support healthy eating patterns for all.

What is one to make of such a set of bullet points?  The only one that seems even remotely more than sloganeering is the third, and there is a curiously large gap between limits on nutrients and the overall DGA emphasis on whole eating patterns.   The third bullet point requires some knowledge of where items might be found, since nutrients, rather than foods, are its focus.  What are the main sources of added sugars?  Sodas!  Saturated fats? Red meat and cheese! Sodium?  Virtually all processed foods!

Marion Nestle has already pointed out that “eat less” messages in the DGAs are couched in terms of nutrients, while “eat more” messages encourage foods (e.g. lean meats).  The cmp_slideshow_plateMyPlate translation of this guideline is: “Drink and eat less sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars”.  These are not obvious items to avoid on grocery store shelves, nor do their food sources come with bold messages: High in Added Sugar! High in Sodium!

But an additional area of obfuscation in the DGAs specifically and nutrition labeling more generally, is quantification. The first two should make up<10% of total calories (a unit most of us struggle to comprehend), and sodium should be <2300 mg. Given American’s longstanding rejection of the metric system, it’s curious that nutrients are listed on food labels or referenced in the DGAs in metric units.  In science, these are standards, but from the perspective of metric-illiterate American consumers, they are utterly useless.  For example, a 12 ounce can of soda (note use of the U.S. customary weight measure for food) has 33 grams of sugar.  How much is 33 grams? A gram seems like such a tiny unit, so this must be a minuscule amount.  Measured in more familiar units, 33 grams of sugar is over 6 teaspoons (2 tablespoons or 1/8th of a cup).  In contrast, 2300 mg of salt seems like a lot, but it is in fact only 1 teaspoon (or 2.3 grams, which makes it seem like very little!).  The teaspoon unit appears only once in the DGAs, in the recommendation for oils (to replace solid fats).

There is much more to say about the 2015 DGAs as a lost opportunity to take a strong stance on diet in relation to Americans’ high risk of diet-related chronic diseases and the long term viability of our food supply.  As it stands, it continues a long history of vague dietary guidance that will have little impact on American dietary patterns.

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Farm To Table, New Orleans, August 8-10 2015

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The 3rd Annual Farm to Table International Conference is scheduled for August 8-10, 2015, at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. F2Ti features the brightest thought leaders and leading practitioners in the burgeoning farm-to-table movement. F2Ti explores the cultivation, distribution, and consumption of food and drink sourced locally to globally. It takes place in tandem with the Louisiana Restaurant Association’s Annual Foodservice & Hospitality EXPO, an event attracting food and beverage professionals from across the country.

This year’s theme, “A Feast for the Senses,” spotlights the sensual aspects of food and drink at every stage of the agricultural-culinary cycle. Topics will include, but are not limited to, best practices in urban farming, bringing products to market, sourcing locally, enhancing sustainability, and the latest trends and developments in the industry, including food science, security, and safety.

Program Features:

  • Panels on best practices in the following educational tracks:

•    Crop to Cup (Brewing, Distilling, Vinting, plus non-alcoholic beverages)
•    Farming and Production
•    Food and Beverage Journalism and Media
•    Farm to School
•    Food Innovation (Science, Technology, Trends, etc.)

  • Keynote speakers of national and international standing
  • Numerous opportunities for networking during the three-day conference program
  • Chef Demos and “Knowledge Center” presentations

WHO SHOULD ATTEND:

  • Chefs, mixologists, and restaurateurs
  • Researchers, academics, and policymakers
  • Farmers and agricultural professionals
  • Writers, publishers, and media
  • Slow food advocates
  • Brewers, distillers, vintners, and distributors
  • Farmers markets and urban farmers
  • Nutritionists and health professionals
  • Grocers and retailers
  • CSA/RSA
  • Foragers
  • Food incubators
  • Food hubs

Additional information can be found here. Registration is here.

F2T is produced by the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in partnership with the SoFAB Institute and the LSU AgCenter.

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CFP: Dystopian Underbellies of Food Utopias

With visions of Soylent (or the original, here) in the news these days, who can resist the following call for papers for a panel at the upcoming International Society for Ethnology and Folklore (SIEF) conference in Zagreb, June 21-25, 2015.

Here is the panel description:

THE DYSTOPIAN UNDERBELLY OF FOOD UTOPIAS
Meltem Türköz (Işık University), António Medeiros (ISCTE-IUL, Lisbon)

This panel aims to bring together papers that explore the moral, aesthetic and philosophical axises around which food utopias are invoked, practiced and performed. Alan Warde’s insight that “the structural anxieties about our age are made manifest in discourses about food” invites us to explore the dystopian underbellies of food utopias. Whether they appeal to authenticity, peace, safety, equality, or plenty, food utopias inherently imply their physical, moral or aesthetic dystopian inverse: of industrial process, adulteration or contamination, distasteful palates, and of unshared bounty. In a cross-cultural parable about the difference between paradise and hell, people sit around a great pot of delicious food, holding spoons too long and large to feed themselves, only to be able to eat when they feed each other. Food-related responses to the industrial food complex, neoliberal globalization and militarization invoke the reciprocity and interconnectedness implied in this parable. The imaginary of un-alienated labor informs the marketing of otherwise industrially prepared foods. In the discourse of purity in extra virgin olive, of authenticity in heirloom fruits and vegetables, food imaginaries in film or literature, the spectacle of hospitality in tourism, or the practice of gift economies in social movements, actors highlight various stages of production, consumption and preparation. We hope to explore the following questions, among others: How are food utopias acquired or cultivated and manifested in daily life? What aspects of food production, exchange, or consumption do these practices and performances reify and make visible—and across which temporal, geographic and spatial boundaries?

The deadline for submissions on the conference web site is January 14th, 2015.

Send inquiries about the panel to Meltem Türköz (fmturkoz@gmail.com) or António Medeiros (antonio.medeiros@iscte.pt).

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