Saturday, September 25, 2010

Carrot Schtick... Schtick

I just watched the @maddow 'Carrot Schtick' segment from her 9/23 show and had some thoughts. Before I begin, let me preface by saying that I subscribe to her video podcast version of The Rachel Maddow Show. I think the material presented is fair and factual, and she brings a level headed demeanor to our polarized world.

First of all, let's give the floor back to the experts. Nothing fries my melon quicker than scientifically illiterate people soap-boxing science. We take food education and advice from college journalism professors who never interview food scientists for his books about food (I'm talking about you, Pollan). People who graduated from college with a liberal arts education(I wrote about this before), tend to approach learning about science in the same way they learned about the classics and humanities. What I notice about these people is that they come from an environment where everything is abstract, so everyone can have an opinion on anything. Science isn't at all opinion friendly. I can believe that one giant cheeseburger and cheese fries will give me a heart attack, but it doesn't make it true. Eating this every day for years will give you an increased likelihood of a heart attack, but not the one and not even for several a month. I can say that the plastic bottle I drink water from will make me sterile from the BPA and give me cancer, but that doesn't make it true. The truth is a lot less exciting and sensational than that.

Trans fats are bad for you, but not to the extent it's been made out to be. A lifetime of far above avg consumption may cause problems.

My thoughts on Child nutrition:

1) Health is a relative term. What is healthy for one person may be too much for another and depends on what else that person ate the rest of the day/week/month

2) School lunches require a certain amount of calories and schools can't possibly be expected to be responsible for what the student's parents give them at home.

3) Calories aren't good or bad, only too few or too many are bad. A zero calorie diet is not a better diet than a 2,500 calorie diet. It's death. We need calories, just not too many... but it depends on the situation... again, not very exciting or sensational.

4) Fats are over-consumed, but not inherently bad. Fat is stored energy that also protects our bodies and keeps us warm. We shouldn't demonize a food just because it has a high fat content. We don't know what else the person ate that day or week. Maybe they're at an acceptable level when their whole diet is observed.

Don't conflate what some lobbyist says with what the science is. A Food Hysteric and a lobbyist will both sensationalize food to the same degree, just in opposite directions. Remember; the truth is very boring and 'blah'. I love food science and even I yawn when reading research.

So Glenn Beck talking about people taking fries away is nutty, but it doesn't make fries evil as well. Fries aren't evil, they're fries. Everything has a place with moderation. My food processing professor at OSU was an expert in dairy and had been teaching at the university level since the late 40's. He was in his mid 80's when I was his student. He drove to school, held office hours, and still ate ice cream every day. He wasn't fat or diabetic or any of that. He always said, 'everything in moderation'. To my knowledge, the only thing he had to cut back on was was pecans, because he found it harder to digest in his later years.

Honestly, even the things we agree aren't good in high amounts(fat, mercury in fish), still takes prolonged exposure to very high amounts of anything legal and not good for you to actually make you sick. This of course, is by design, because the amount's allowed per serving of things like BPA is set at a tiny fraction of the minimal amount it takes to cause illness.

For example:

Additive X causes illness @ 2 grams per kilogram of body weight(toxicity).

FDA sets the highest allowable amount @ 20 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.

Food Y contains 100 micrograms of X per serving & 2 servings per can(16 oz ).

Food Y then contains 200 micrograms of X per can.

So you'd need to eat 100 16oz cans of food Y to get ill from Additive X... and X metabolizes in 3 days, so you have that long to eat 100 cans of Food Y.

But that isn't exciting. It 's roughly in the ball park of how toxicity levels work for everything allowed in our food.

I think I got off track here, but let me restate a few things. I like The Rachel Maddow Show and I understand that her larger point for this segment was pointing out that the GOP may be testing the waters for a culture war. I'm just concerned that science will get lumped in with a political party, and because of that, people on the left will only grow more cynical about science and write off everything as 'Big' [fill in the blank].

To have a real science based discussion about anything in our society, especially food, requires people that, quite frankly, know what the hell they're talking about, not journalism Prof's or lobbyists. I would ask anyone affiliated with The Rachel Maddow Show that is reading this to look into utilizing food science experts in the same way you utilize astro-physicists to discuss space. Some great resources for interviews would be colleges with top food science programs, such as: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Cornell, Penn State, and UC Davis. Also make use of IFT(Institute of Food Technologists).

Above all else, we need a renewed interest in science education in this country so well intentioned ppl can spot sound science and recognize the frauds and misleading correlation studies.

[I apologize for the rambling nature of this post. It was late(or early) and I felt like saying some things that weren't all under much of a unifying theme.]

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Total Recall: Food Safety Hysteria Gives Rise To Unnecessary Demands.

People are upset about a food safety bill that is currently stalled in the Senate.  The bill mandates regular inspections of food plants, which I also support.  But one of the strange things to come out of the recent salmonella outbreak and this bill stalling, is people's continued claim that the FDA is powerless to do any enforcement.

The New York Times ran a story about the bill and mentioned the egg recall, stating the following:

"...the F.D.A. never inspected the Iowa egg facilities at the center of the recalls. Even if it had, the agency would not have had the power to order that their eggs be recalled despite conditions it later found to be filthy."

I find this to be very misleading.  First off, the FDA absolutely has the power to order the eggs be recalled.  There are two things here.  Number one, the FDA can ask the company to institute a recall and as soon as they do, the FDA assists them and provides guidance to ensure the proper steps are being taken.  Yes, all recalls are voluntary, but I will challenge anyone reading this to find instances where a food company refused to issue a recall.  That brings me to number two and the reason why recall requests are always granted - seizure.

Under 21 U.S.C. 334 the FDA has the authority to seize food it believes to be contaminated or adulterated in some way.  Food companies absolutely do not want this to happen... ever.  Just on a P.R. level, any company would much rather look like they caught a mistake and are trying to make it right by recalling the adulterated product.  This is where the New York Times' story is so misleading.  No food company in their right mind, or with credible evidence that proves they are being unfairly treated, would ever risk an FDA seizure.  Under a recall, the FDA helps.  Under a seizure, the FDA takes over, in some instances keeping you from running production by clotting your supply lines and warehouse storage.  A seizure is like a crazy cat lady having her cats taken away because they're emaciated/diseased/abused... it's an indictment on the party involved.  Some companies didn't survive massive recalls because of the negative impact it had on their sales.  Under a seizure, you give up all ability to say you are trying to make thing's right.  This is why the New York Times article is so intellectually dishonest.

The power to demand a recall is unnecessary and in my opinion, does more harm than good.  Even to good facilities, bad things can happen.  A worker can fail to notify their supervisor they are ill and work their shift, contaminating food.  Temperature anomalies can occur in between regular temperature checks, preventing some of the product from reaching a proper kill temp for bacteria.  A packaging employee may grab a spindle of identical looking labels that don't have the allergen statement.  The voluntary recall gives the company a chance to own the problem and make it right.  Believe it or not, most people do give a damn about their jobs and the safety of their products.  A seizure is a last resort action meant to stop a rogue company from harming the public.  By harming a business that just made a careless mistake, you potentially put thousands of people out of work.

What I want to see happen...

The FDA has roughly 51,229 facilities to inspect but inspected fewer than 1,000 in 2008.  This is a big problem and this is the reason:

We simply need more Consumer Safety Officers, the boots on the ground that actually go to these facilities and carry out the inspections.  Specialists are the people that are technical writers, researchers, and food microbiologists that process samples.

We need to have close to 5,000 inspectors, but until recently, the FDA had been underfunded.  This is the biggest problem.  The next big problem that must be tackled is the hiring process. 

On there are no entry level Consumer Safety Officer positions to apply for.  None.  There are only GS-7 Through GS-13, which are PhD's and upper management positions, on up to director level.  The USDA's Food Safety & Inspection Service, which inspects meat facilities, does have a GS-5 entry level Food Inspector position open, but this leads me to the next part of the problem.  The process for getting hired involves filling out a lengthy application and meeting certain educational requirements, which is understandable for a government position.  They also take at least 6 - 8 weeks after the posted job's closing date to get back to the candidates that applied.  This position's closing date?  01/31/2011  You won't even know if you made it to the first round of phone interviews nearly 6 months.  What food safety/food science talent(myself, for example) can afford to wait that long just to start the interview process?

So we need more people and the speed at which we hire those people needs to increase exponentially.  Notice that my solutions didn't involve any new laws other than requiring timely inspections.  It isn't the laws that are flawed, it's the execution.

The truth is, instances of food borne illnesses have been decreasing since the end of the last century.  That doesn't mean we can't do way better, but it does mean there is a fair amount of hysteria out there.  Hopefully, someone with the USDA and FDA addresses these human resource issues.  If so, I'll be the first to apply.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


I've had a few notable quotables in my day.  I know of at least a handful of times where people grabbed a pen and immediately started writing down what I just said.  I've also had instances where people say things to me then wait for my reaction.  After a couple seconds, they say it again and look sad when I don't recognize what turns out to be a 'Sam Quote'.

Most recently, I came up with the combination of Terrel Owens and Ocho Cinco, which is T.Ocho Cinco.  Although, I didn't research that hard to see if that was ever used before.  Not bragging, just establishing a history of me classifying things.

My newest creation is a term that explains the ill logic and insanity of some Food Hysterics and Foodies.  The term did appear very briefly in New York Magazine a couple years ago, but it was kind of a suggestion...

Edible Brooklyn editor Gabrielle Langholtz suggested that bona fide food fans — those who read food books, travel to food destinations, and taste obsessively — could refer to themselves as “foodists,” as intense Star Trek fans go not by “trekkies” but “trekkers”
 The term is defined by other people and it varies from person to person.  Some people use it like you would use nutritionist.

I have added my own definition for the term/mindset.

Foodism:  A prejudice against a brand or type of food - for reasons other than taste - without rational or credible reasoning to back up your feelings.  Essentially, it's the same mindset that racists have.

This is where I ran into a little trouble.

People were telling me that I think foodies are racists and I never said that.  I said they have the same mindset.  A racist might hate black people, but his reasoning might be based on something that is factually inaccurate or completely illogical.  For instance, people used to think that getting blood transfusions from black Americans would alter their soul.  There is no science to support this and it's obviously false and irrational.

A foodist (as I define them) will make disparaging remarks about a food and when pressed for a reason, it never bears out anything credible.  This works for a type of food, or a specific brand.

I have long said that there is no good or bad foods, just things people eat.  It's the totality of everything in our diets that contribute - in part - to our total health.  The sodium in a Dorito is no worse than the equivalent sodium in French Onion soup or a risotto.  But if you eat the Dorito, someone will make some joke about you having a heart attack.  So when pressed on this, the foodist then says it's the preservatives.  Preservatives?  Which one?  ...Crickets...  

Look at all the obesity and diabetes and autism... autism!
 So the preservatives cause all those things? Each preservative causes all those or all those preservatives have to be combined?

Don't be a dick, you know it's the high fructose corn syrup and the fatty tortilla chip.
So all Doritos are bad or all tortilla chips are bad?

 So foodists are not racists, but the soundness and validity(or lack thereof) of their argument mimics the same structure a racist uses.  A racist has reasons, but they are quickly discredited and an underlying ignorance about that race is exposed.

Foodism also can involve elements of conspiracy theorists and what I call a belief in magic.  The evil CEO is sequestered in his fancy boardroom, plotting against their customers...  The best is when a foodist asserts something about food that cannot be explained by science. 

What started all this was someone saying that GMO foods cause infertility, then told me to keep eating my Doritos.  First off, foodists are so friendly.  Second, GMO foods cause infertility?  Really?  What gene, when altered, causes infertility? No answer.  Why?  Magic.  They hate GMO's so it must be true.  What really happens is that some researcher with expertise in an unrelated field does a correlation study.  Actually, a good 99% of foodists and food hysterics cite correlation studies as gospel.  The least scientific study you can do is a correlation study.  Then people add their own anecdotal evidence and confirmation bias and wala... magic.

You know who isn't a foodist?  A food scientist.  Food scientists know that food is food and if you eat a lot of fat and carbs, you'll carry more fat and be at a risk of having issues, but it isn't the specific food, it's the fat, sodium, et cetera.  Some foods are very nutrient dense, which is great if you need a lot of nutrients, and some foods are higher in fat or carbs, which is great if you're an athlete and carry a low body fat percentage and have a high metabolism.

Mozzarella Cheese sticks with marinara = bad, will kill you very fast.
Organic Goat Cheese coated in bread crumbs, sauteed in butter, served on a disc of fresh red sauce = fine.


That, my friends, is foodism.

The truth is that one Big Mac will not kill you.  It might cause a health problem if you eat Big Macs every day, for years... and only if the Big Macs put you over your limit on sodium and fat.  If you stay at or below your limit of calories/sodium/fat then you could eat Big Macs every day and be fine.  Why?  It's the totality of the diet, not a food, not a brand, and not a specific corporation's evil CEO that you think is petting a cat and staring at 5 computer monitors... and laughing maniacally.

So quit being such a foodist.