The Best, Worst and Most Overlooked Food Stories of 2011

Every December for the last nine years, the Hunter PR firm has announced the results of a nationwide survey of Americans' picks the top ten food news stories of the year. The list says as much about the media that writes the headlines as it does about the people who remember them.

The survey also investigated how Americans respond to the news, and found that 61 percent of those surveyed changed their food habits based on news coverage. Forty-five percent were influenced to cook more at home. Who can blame them?

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act was signed on January 4, a milestone that took sixth place on the Hunter survey. The bill was in response to contamination events from previous years, but it set the tone for the year to come as well. The year's No. 1 story was the cantaloupe-borne listeria that killed 30 people, while Cargill's 36-million-pound turkey recall took fourth.

The food safety bill has yet to stem the tide of factory farm-borne disease, but it's already created problems for small farmers, who are finding themselves overwhelmed with the so-called Good Agricultural Practices the bill mandates. County and university extension agents are scrambling to set up web pages to help deal with the surge of annoyed farmers trying to follow the new rules.

The most baffling entry on the Hunter list may be a food-safety issue of a different sort: the USDA lowered the internal temperature requirements for commercially served pork from 160 to 145 degrees. Perhaps the masses are anticipating moister pork loin whilst out on the town. I doubt many members of the general public even own a meat thermometer for home cooking. Thus, they've probably been eating undercooked pork at home all along. But nonetheless, something about those 15 degrees really captivated readers.

What does it say about America that medium rare pork is bigger news than tens of thousands of North Africans that starved this year from a harsh mix of drought and war? But then, most Africans probably wouldn't rank Michelle Obama's MyPlate nutritional guide as their No. 2 news story of the year, either. It's to be expected that people are most focused on what directly affects them.

The only place where North African starvation intersects with the Hunter list is in position # 3: record-breaking global food prices. And prices might just go higher. The world's population is growing, the land base isn't, speculation on food commodities is virtually unregulated, we're eating more meat, and severe weather events are wreaking havoc on crops with greater frequency than ever.

Half of Hunter's top ten involved nutritional issues. This can be encouraging and frustrating. It's important to get people thinking about nutrition, and mandatory nutritional labeling of chain restaurant menus (#5), for example, may encourage that. But we still have to apply critical thinking to the numbers, and even understanding the numbers can be derailed by a faulty premise. MyPlate, for example, is smudged with corporate fingerprints, like the dairy industry's recommendation that adult humans should eat or drink cow milk products three times a day. This isn't nutritional guidance so much as political armbending.

Two of the most envelope-pushing nutrition stories on the Hunter list evolved from court cases. In slot #9, General Mills is being sued for marketing sugary fruit leather as health food, when such formulations are in fact recipes for obesity.

In another child obesity story, which took #8 on the list, an Ohio court removed a 200-pound 8-year-old boy from his Cleveland home. The move was justified on the basis of imminent health risk, including diabetes, heart problems, and other forms of early death and disability. Poor nutrition, according to the court, can equal neglect.

And now, here's a rundown of a few important stories that escaped the Hunter survey's radar.

Prices fetched by Midwestern agricultural land hit record heights, with choice parts of Iowa breaking $20,000 an acre thanks in part to the market for corn-based ethanol. Today farmers can essentially grow bushels of gasoline in their cornfields. But the writing is on the wall for the industry: political support for corn-based ethanol subsidies is crumbling, and $6 billion in subsidies are in danger of being dropped from next year's farm bill.

Dramas over biotechnology provided no shortage of important headlines this past year. Despite overwhelming opposition from public comments, agency scientists, and even a few pesky court rulings, USDA and FDA only increased their efforts to improve the bottom lines of genetically modified (GM) crop companies. Such agency advocacy included the approval of GM alfalfa and sugar beets, which both have the potential to destroy important sectors of the organic industry.

Agency support for biotech grew even as evidence came to light of the health and environmental hazards of genetically modified crops. Several studies found that consumption of GM corn and soybeans causes significant organ disruptions in rats and mice. And there is so much evidence that Monsanto's rootworm resistant corn plant is breeding GM corn resistant rootworms, you'd think former Monsanto lawyers were writing the USDA's regulations. Which they are.

Recent surveys have shown that more than 90 percent of Americans want labels on their food indicating whether it includes genetically modified ingredients. I wouldn't be surprised if in 2012 this vast majority will finally get its wish. A broad coalition of organizations, lead by the Center for Food Safety, has launched Just Label It, a campaign aiming to either convince the FDA to mandate labeling, or convince President Obama to make the agency do it. The campaign has momentum, public support, and an election year on its side.

This year saw the food police empowered by FDA's Food Modernization Act, and they repeatedly clashed with locavores. The Rawesome food-buying club was raided and shut down by federal and Los Angeles County officials for selling raw milk, a crime that has been prosecuted in various ways elsewhere around the nation. And Southern Nevada officials in November shut down a "farm to table" dinner at a Community Supported Agriculture farm for a number of supposed food safety infractions.

Regulations designed to address the profit-chasing ways of big food corporations don't currently leave much room to operate for small farmers and consumers. Producers are being strangled by red tape, while the people looking to buy their food can't do so without breaking some law.

This kind of meddling in our mouths won't fly in America. Expect such clashes to continue until food safety laws are modified to allow small-scale, local agriculture to thrive in peace, unmolested by bureaucrats.

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