Friday, April 23, 2010

Political Science vs. Food Science

Since there are bills being considered relating to food safety regulation, I thought I would take a few minutes to tread the contemptuous waters of political science.  I won't talk about the bills themselves, just the basic principles of regulation, where I stand, and where politics gets in the way of good policy.

I have a strange mixture of ideologies.  It's not strange to me, but it is to everyone else in this crazy polarized country of ours.  Some people's ideologies are formed by fundamental beliefs, some by fact, and some by misinformation.   My politics are a combination of facts and fundamental beliefs in how we should treat others.  I have a certain level of expertise in food science and food safety, which tends to land me amongst many conservatives and libertarians, but I'm pretty liberal in all other fronts except maybe economic development theory.

This really sucks when talking to people about non-food issues, because as soon as food issues are brought up, I have to switch sides and oppose these otherwise nice/logical people.  To liberals I say that you defer to the scientists when it comes to theology(age of the Earth/Creationism), and you defer to the scientists when it comes to Climate Change, but you completely abandon science when it comes to issues regarding food.  Why?

Are you all food scientists that know things everyone else does not?  No.  Are you simply misinformed? Not really, because when I bring up the science behind something or studies indicating that I am correct, you'll reject them outright.  You call them biased if food science experts do a study about food, then cite your own biased study from an environmental group.  And by the way, would you hire a diesel mechanic or someone from the Army Corps of Engineers to cater a wedding?  Would you trust a study on carbon emissions from a food scientist?

For whatever reason, food has become politicized, and I have a theory about this.  Liberals seem to be in support of things that are niche markets, and small operations.  Many of these movements tend to be on the radical side(meaning extreme, not awesome).  Organic supporters want to believe that organic food has better nutritional value.  Locavores believe that a cow that was processed nearby somehow tastes better. Raw milkers think that the statistically insignificant loss of some nutrients during pasteurization can cure all the ills of the world.

So this would appear to be a liberal set of beliefs regarding food, but hold on a minute, what happens when a large operation gets into these markets?  Now the liberals create a new term, green-washing.  Suddenly, everything they were so evangelical about(science be damned) is now insincere, cynical bunk.  It's now Walmart and Tyson and Dean Foods trying to trick you.

The Food Hysteric's agenda - whether they realize this or not - is just a cover for being anti-corporate.  Some of it may just be a counter-culture thing, but it's mostly a complete lack of faith that large companies can be interested in both profitability as well as safety(I think these corporation's legal/marketing depts would beg to differ with you).

So when legislation is introduced regarding food, it is written with this sort of anti-corporate populism that can end up ignoring science altogether.  We propose strong reforms to eliminate BPA even though it is not even remotely dangerous at even the highest detected levels found in products that use it for packaging.  One study I mentioned in one of my first posts took the highest amount of detected BPA in a product and figured out the least amount of that product it would take to harm someone.  The product was Dole canned fruit and I think they calculated that you would have to consume several hundred pounds per day for a lifetime to get ill.  But we have states voting to eliminate BPA because people are scared and it's political suicide to support it.

Local meat processors are freaking out because there is a push to see that the small operations verify the safety of their HACCP programs through microbiological testing - just like large processors do.

It's not science, it's politics.  Small operators don't want to give up their profits to ensure their food is safe, but they are all too happy to see Tyson and Koch and Cargill have to pony up.  It's a sick sense of satisfaction that Food Hysteric's enjoy when anything punitive is brought down upon a corporation.

Let me also say that I am pro-regulation.  Yes, let's hold each other's feet to the fire and make sure we are doing all we can to have a safe food supply, but that means everyone.  People have been pushing to mandate that the FDA inspect many more plants than it is.  This seems rational until you realize that the FDA is critically understaffed, same with the USDA.  So what good is new regulation in this instance, when it doesn't solve the problem of a poorly staffed agency?  This is what happens when science and reason are suppressed in favor of politics, populism, misinformation, and hysteria.

Science isn't left or right.  In fact, I'd say that most scientifically minded people I encounter are libertarian - not the fake tea-party libertarian, mind you, but the Ron Paul libertarians.  Can science win?  I sure hope so, or else our society will head for a second dark ages with lower crop yields, everything considered toxic, and nobody aspiring to enrich our lives through science and innovation.

It isn't just food, that suffers our science illiteracy.  NASA has been grossly underfunded for years.  'Too expensive.  A waste.' people say.  NASA only takes one half of one percent of the budget, but brings about jobs and creates technology that is used in many other industries.

The title of this blog post is a clickable link to read a story about BPA by Dr. Elizabeth Whelan.  I urge you all to read it.  Also, you can find me on Twitter @samvance and look me up on Facebook under the same name.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things...

You know how Oprah has a favorite things week?  She talks about stuff she uses and then bribes people with cars and candles and whatnot.  I think that's pretty cool, except I have no sponsor and no money for giving things away, but I'd still like to share what food related gadgets and food products that I really do use.  If marketing reps for any of these products want to send me stuff, I won't stop you.

The Oster Food Steamer 5716.

Vegetarian?  Carnivore?  Omnivore?  It makes no difference what you're into, you need one of these yesterday.  This unit features two stackable steam compartments and a pan.  You can use just one compartment if you want.  The versatility doesn't end there, one of the steam pans has indents for steaming eggs.  I mainly use this for hard steamed eggs, and steamed rice, but you can steam asparagas in the bottom while salmon or shrimp or crab legs steam to perfection in the top.  It's also great for steaming hot dogs, brats, and even chorizo.  When the digital timer goes off the steamer automatically goes into a warm mode.  There is a clear water reservoir and spot to add more water when it gets low without having to take everything apart.  Unlock a whole new dimension to your cooking with this product.  Seriously, go buy this now.

Hamilton Beach Set n' Forget 6 Quart Slow Cooker.

Another must have.  Sturdy.  Reliable.  Metal.  This beats your crock-pot in several ways.  
1. Electronic timer - You can set the time, the heat level, and even the desired temperature of the product.
2.  Temperature Probe - Stick the thermometer in the meat, set the cooker to stop when the roast hits 150-155 and go to work.  Once the temperature is reached, the cooker goes into a warm mode for up to 10 hours more. 
3.  Lockable Lid - The lid can be clamped down to the cooker, not the pot itself.  This way, the whole thing can be transported or you can hold more steam and moisture in thanks to the rubber gasket lining the lid.
4.  Heavy Duty - The actual crock-pot is heavy and tough, meaning that you don't have to treat it with kid gloves.  The pot is oven safe for those recipes that call for a crispy crust on top.
5.  Stainless Steel - Stylish and easy to clean.  Most modern lofts and apartments have stainless appliances anyway, so this fits in quite nicely.

I've cooked a chicken, a 10lb pork shoulder, my Spicy Sausage & Beef Cincinnati Style Chili, Mac n' Cheese, and more in this cooker.  It has brought me much joy and many nom noms.

Tyson Spicy Chicken Breast Fillets.
What really surprised me about this product was how microwave friendly it was.  Normally, things like this are best in the oven.  In the microwave, they typically come out too hard or dry.  This product was crisp on the edges and moist on the inside with slow, satisfying heat.  I just make sandwiches with them using Klosterman's buns, swiss cheese, and a little blue cheese dressing.

I currently use an electric burner because I have a gas stove but I never turned the gas on.  I just didn't want to deal with the hassle.  The electric burner takes forever to heat up and the temperature controls are a little touchy.  Here's what I'd love to get my hands on:

Meyer Induction Burner.  Crate and Barrel. $199.95

From Crate and Barrel:
The hot plate goes haute with this state-of-the-art update. The high-frequency electromagnetic field penetrates a pan, circulating electric current that turns the pan itself into the heat source. This extremely efficient, environmentally friendly cooking method uses 90% of the energy created, compared to about 55% using traditional methods – and boils water twice as fast. Features include nine pre-set power levels, seven pre-set cooking temperatures, 10-hour timer and user-friendly control panel that slides inside the unit for compact storage (see additional photos). Perfect for an extra burner in the kitchen, tabletop cooking, buffet or dorm room.

  • Stainless steel, plastic and ceramic
  • 9 pre-set power levels from low simmer to high
  • 7 pre-set temperatures from 150 to 430 degrees
  • 10-hour timer
  • Clean with a damp cloth
 I want one.

So...what's your favorite thing?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Opinions, Facts, and Assholes Like Me.

I'll try to make this brief, or at least, brief for me.  I've gotten into a lot of heated exchanges with people over the last month about food science and food issues.  I expect it, especially since the public has been indoctrinated to not trust a) corporations or b) anything mass produced.

That's fine to be skeptical, and as a matter of fact, it's most scientific to be skeptical.  There has to be a point, however, when you are presented with facts or given the technical reality that negates your point of view, that you cede to reason.

All too often people retreat and hide behind this mantra, 'Well, that's my opinion'.  Well, sometimes your opinion ceases to be an opinion and simply becomes dogma, a point of faith.  I hate onions.  Beer tastes like moldy iced tea and urine.  Black chicks that are into rock music and girls with foreign accents are always hotter.  These are opinions I hold. 

The sky is blue.  Organic food is more nutritious than conventional.  Cold brew tea bags diffuse no faster than regular tea bags in cold water.  These are not opinions, because these can be proven true or false.

I was tweeting with someone and they put Food Science in snarky quotes, as if to say it isn't really science.  I think that may be part of the problem.  People don't trust the source of the information.  To clear this up real quick let me just say a couple things about food science.

There is no giant building called Food Science where everybody in the food industry meets and decides how to fool the public and fake research.  Food Science is made up of industry professionals from researchers to executives and of academic professors and grad students.  There are no corporate g-men looking over a master's student while she/he works on their thesis study.  Large food companies have hundreds of researchers, technicians, and scientists that all did the work of learning about food science to get their degree before working for industry.  It's not some conspiracy, designed to deceive you.  Treat what a food science professional tells you with no less respect than a geologist telling you about rocks or an astrophysicist telling you about space.

And when we present the evidence and the facts and the studies, accept that you may no longer have an opinion, and that you may have just become wrong.  We are all entitled to our own opinions, but we are not entitled to our own facts.

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