Wednesday, August 11, 2010

My Response To The NYT Slow Food Article...

Click on the blog title to see the NYT article I am responding to...

Spam is merely SPiced hAM and consists of shoulder and ham cuts of pork mixed in a salt solution and pressed into shape.  Your dogs never ate so good [to the commenter on the NYT article page that said she wouldn't even feed Spam to her dog].

Much of the cynicism about the food industry and food science in particular, stems from scientific illiteracy that plagues our country.  This is why many of you believe whatever the Food Hysterics at Whole Foods tell you and it's why you read the books of a journalism professor and take them as fact.  Much of the college educated population have Liberal Arts degrees.  Nothing wrong with that, but the problem is that you go reading about science, the same way you went about learning the humanities.  Science is a little different.  Science requires background knowledge, patience, testing, and listening to credible sources.  Much of Liberal Arts is intangible; abstract ideas and philosophies... opinions.  Science is mostly concrete and in the cases where it is abstract, the basic ideas are testable.

I think this difference in education helps explain why people believe the things they do about food.  People don't have the background knowledge of toxicity or they haven't worked with numbers enough to understand the difference between a trace amount of something(BPA for example) and the amounts it really takes of the substance to cause illness.  This is also why people believe in homeopathy and shield their kids from receiving vaccinations.

Food today is safer than it has ever been.  Foodborne illnesses have been declining steadily every year since the implementation of HACCP principles in the mid 90's.  But still, people say that the food industry is poisoning kids.  People site discredited studies about food from everyone but food scientists, so you see the modern mythologies of HFCS and Food Dyes take hold.

I have a food science and technology degree and I get people who very 'matter of factly' tell me things that are dead wrong all the time.  Hot dogs contain meat/fat/nitrates & nitrites(for color and safety), not lips and asses.  Organic food has the exact same nutrients as conventional.  All meat and milk has  some hormones in it naturally.  All meat is antibiotic free so long as farmers follow the proper withdrawal periods.  Pesticide residues are very small and would require the consumption of hundreds of pounds of fruit/veggies in a day to get sick from them.

Nobody wants to listen, though.

For whatever reason, the Food Hysterics take comfort in their ignorance and they take comfort believing that all corporations are evil and want them dead.  The truth is that corporations benefit greatly from producing safe food and the larger companies have the means to implement safety controls and advanced testing that small operations can't compete with.

But nobody want's to believe that.

Of course, you are all entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts.

Facts:  The old days were not any fun for the farmers.

Farmers needed more kids since the work was so labor intensive.  It took massive effort to pull weeds on large fields or to constantly move livestock from pasture to pasture and from creek to creek.  A return to this type of farming means you need more people per acre working the land.

You also need more land.  Yields 100 years ago were much smaller than today, so a return to that agriculture will require 2 to 3 times the land.  The late Norman Borlaug figured that converting the world to organic farming would only produce enough food for roughly half of the population.  Any volunteers to never eat again?

Educate yourself.  Find a food scientist.  Ohio State, Michigan, Cornell, UC Davis, and Wisconsin all have top notch food science departments.  Talk to the faculty, email them.  Pay attention to the sources of information.  Even doctors are unqualified to discuss matters of food science... as are environmental scientists.  Get your information from peer reviewed journals and pay attention to things like sample sizes.  Email a food scientist when you don't understand something instead of becoming cynical or inventing conspiracy theories.

And if all else fails, you can ask me.  I'm on Twitter @samvance and I have a blog

Thanks for reading.


  1. Great blog, now following you. It's important to remember that times change, practices change. There are simply more people about these days and less land about per capita as a result. This means that pressure on land and productivity is higher and we must use modern methods to ensure this.

    The other problem is that consumers have much more access to media, doctors, etc and are generally better informed but overloaded with this scare and that scare. Food safety is better now than it has been a for a long time but in the old days we didn't have the range and choice or sheer number of people making food for us. We used to make it all fresh ourselves and this is the number one reason for the incidence of food poisoning and food borne illness in the world.

    The simple fact is if you make it fresh and make it yourself you are far less likely to get food poisoning.

    James Flynn
    HACCP Now

  2. Well... people making food for themselves isn't necessarily safer. They just don't blame anyone when they get sick and don't report any illness unless it's serious. So nobody reports salmonellosis or enteritis, but that doesn't mean they don't get these illnesses. So they only report the very serious illnesses like Botulism.

    People who cook at home are a little cocky about their processes and may not see the need for using 2 cutting boards, or washing hands properly, or checking the temperature of the hamburger or meatloaf they cooked. Also, people at home lack HACCP plans, a QA dept, microbiological testing, and a process to place their dinner on hold until an authority clears it through testing.


Put your comment here, kind sir/madame. Try to cite sources when stating facts and refrain from off topic comments or hateful/nasty rhetoric.