Food News Hooks: Safety, Healthfulness, Availability, Cost, and More

February 2, 2011

Food. Water. Shelter. No matter how high- or low-tech your world is, it always boils down to these very basic issues.

This Tip focuses on food, which much of your audience likely considers a minor issue since they see it as generally available, affordable, healthy, environmentally benign, and unrelated to issues such as national security. You can help paint a more realistic picture for them, from the global to the local.

THE GLOBE

A new global food study by a UK government think tank called Foresight has found that one-third of the global population suffers from serious hunger or nutritional deficiencies, while another one-sixth is burdened with a wide range of adverse health effects from overconsumption and obesity. The 400 authors from 34 countries predict that failure to reduce these problems — and the food-linked greenhouse gas emissions that make up 30% of the world’s total — will likely lead to increased conflict (already demonstrated by numerous food riots in recent years), migration, and other actions related to the national security of many nations.

Among the environmental issues that the authors say are inextricable from food production and consumption are energy, water, climate change, and biodiversity. Other critical issues are food waste; poverty; economic incentives, disincentives, and speculation; the roles of the private and public sectors; local food vs. imports; transportation infrastructure; and personal assumptions and expectations about food.

The authors say that organic agriculture has a place at the table, but that it won’t work to have all food grown in this manner. They also say that genetically modified food and cloned livestock should be considered as parts of the solution.

A very different conclusion about some of the preferred remedies for food problems was reached in a 2008 report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (initiated by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Bank). The report, which was supported by the UK and 57 other governments, found that local food production and organic agriculture were a high priority, and that genetically modified foods were not. Three countries did not accept parts of the report – the US, Canada, and Australia.

Just a few weeks before the Foresight report was released, the Earth Policy Institute published its latest book, which has a strong focus on food issues.

Brown says the world has reached an unsustainable “food production bubble” that is threatened by factors such as overdrawn water supplies, shortages of productive land, and changes being induced by climate change. He says that when food prices inevitably soar as a result of these and other pressures, there will be global economic and political instability. As one example, he cites the 2010 Russian heat wave near Moscow that had a major impact on global grain prices. He says that if the same scenario had played out in the US Midwest, the world grain market would have been devastated.

For another media perspective on global food issues that covers some of the same issues, but which may provide some additional sources for you to contact, see:

THE UNITED STATES

Some of these issues play out on a daily basis at a local and national scale in the United States.

Access and Affordability

You can begin to get a handle on issues of access to healthy, affordable food by using the US Dept. of Agriculture’s updated Food Environment Atlas that was publicized Jan. 19, 2011.

It uses 168 indicators at the county level (up from 90 in the previous iteration) to identify factors such as availability of grocery stores and restaurants, food prices, expenditures on fast foods, availability of local foods, food and nutrition assistance programs, food taxes, hunger, numerous health status and physical activity indicators, and various demographic traits. In some cases, multiple factors are combined, such as low income, not having a vehicle, and living more than 10 miles from a grocery store. There are many ways to look at the data at the national, state, and/or county level.

For several media perspectives on local food issues, see:

Contamination

Food contamination is another major issue. On Jan. 21, 2011, the US Food and Drug Administration announced its first annual summary of industry-reported incidents involving contamination of human, animal, and pet foods (except for infant formula and dietary supplements, which are addressed via other reporting systems, and not including foods exclusively under the jurisdiction of the US Dept. of Agriculture, or any type of contamination reported by consumers). Congress mandated the new reporting process in the Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007 (Public Law 110-85).

There were 2,240 reports addressing 229 unique problems from Sept. 8, 2009, to Sept. 7, 2010. Among the 25 commodity categories involved, the most commonly contaminated was animal feed/pet food, followed by dairy, seafood, spices/seasonings, bakery goods, and nut products. The most frequent contamination sources, in descending order, were Salmonella, undeclared allergens/intolerances, Listeria monocytogenes, E. coli O157:H7, uneviscerated fish, and foreign objects.

A little less than one-fourth of the 229 incidents involved products from foreign countries. China was the leading culprit, but numerous countries had multiple reports, including Mexico, Canada, India, Turkey, Guatemala, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam.

The reported problems may be the tip of the iceberg, since the FDA acknowledges that all reporting is voluntary, and that some industry players both in the US and abroad likely are not reporting. In addition, reporting by public health officials of any known problems is optional. Specific companies aren’t named in the report, but the information provided may allow you to track down some of the culprits through a little clever detective work.

Many other efforts to improve food safety have been established in the Food Safety Modernization Act (search the Library of Congress for HR 2751) that became Public Law 111-353 on Jan. 4, 2011. It will take some time for these to come to fruition, but you can wade through the bill to begin getting a handle on pending programs, possibly aided on some aspects — such as rapid consumer access to contamination incidents — by leads provided in one example of media coverage:

Drought

Growing food in the southern half of the country likely will be a challenge through at least this spring, and possibly much longer, since NOAA is predicting significant drought throughout this zone. That continues the dry spell that began in late fall 2010, and could affect the availability and price of many foods. Among the hardest hit areas so far have been parts of Florida, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. The areas likely to dry up the most this spring generally extend from Arizona to Kansas to North Carolina and include much of the area south of that general line.