White House meeting elicits pledges to reduce antibiotic use

New York Times – Tuesday 2nd June

US President Barack Obama recently convened a meeting at the White House to urge a number of heavyweights from the food industry, along with hospitals, to pledge to reduce the use of antibiotics medically important to humans. The administration wants to raise awareness of the critical danger of antimicrobial resistance, which is killing 23,000 Americans a year. It’s part of Obama’s wider strategy to address the overuse and misuse of these drugs.

The meeting was a bit of a PR parade to focus attention on the issue, which is no bad thing. But pledges at this point are a little meek and mild in the face of what is becoming a major public health crisis. Pledges are cheap these days, in any case, and the multinational companies Tyson, Perdue and Foster Farms have already made pledges to reduce antibiotics medically important to humans of their own volition.

Still, the meeting was a success! John Holdren, the White House’s director of Science and Technology Policy, claimed that, “Today’s commitments demonstrate the power of voluntary action to effect sweeping change.” His optimism spilleth over. Some of us are not so sure the meeting will effect the kind of “sweeping change” that is truly required. A closer look at the detail of the pledges already made by the companies and a bit of investigation into what the ‘antibiotic-free’ label means, reveals that promises might not be enough. Meaningful change on this issue is coming in baby steps in the United States, with the Food and Drug Administration only recently requiring farmers to get a prescription from a vet to give their animals antibiotics. At this rate, antibiotic resistance is not going to turn around anytime soon.

Minister to meet OP sheep dip campaigners

Farmers Weekly – Thursday 11th June

UK farm minister George Eustice has agreed to meet representatives of farmers and farm workers affected by the use of sheep dips containing organophosphate chemicals. This follows a Westminter Hall debate which was led by MP Jessica Morden.

Sheep farmers in the UK were required by law to use OP ship dips from the 1970s, following a ban on the use of DDT sheep dips introduced after French consumers refused to buy British lamb dipped in the organochlorine chemical. The compulosory requirement was finally dropped in 1992, though many farmers continue to use them voluntarily.

OP chemicals can detroy the enzyme cholinesterase which is needed for the proper functioning of the nervous system. More than 500 people claim to have had their health seriously damaged by the use of OP sheep dips, though it remains unclear whether some people are more sensitive to them than others or the lack of adequate advice on protective clothing at the time was the major cause of the problem.

The Sheep Dip Sufferers Support Group is calling for an independent inquiry and official recognition from the government that those affected were poisoned by the use of OP sheep dip chemicals.

Walmart’s food suppliers at odds with store’s code of ethics, report claims

The Guardian – Friday 5th June

Walmart has been working hard lately to brush up its image. Bad press about its minimum-wage workers living on US government food stamps has built on its monolithic reputation as a destroyer of small town centres. It’s been making a lot of changes – embracing sustainability, supporting organics and improving both wages and its supply chain. But a new report raises questions about whether it’s been following through on its new and more ethical standards.

The Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA) has been looking into Walmart’s practices and assessing if it is adhering to its ethical policies. It found much still to be concerned about. The report pointed out that there continue to be significant problems with key suppliers, highlighting, for example, the slavery embedded in the Thai fishing industry that remains the company’s main supplier of shrimps, and the environmental damage caused by the chicken company Tyson, which resulted in a massive fine from the Environmental Protecion Agency (EPA).

Public demand for better ethical practice in multinational companies is increasing. It’s driving changes in the palm oil industry, for example, where there is a move to eliminate deforestation from the supply chain. Higher wages and better labour standards are also being called for in big retail stores and fast-food chains. The pressure from the public is compelling companies to improve their standards, but the problem remains that promises are easier to make than to put into practice. To ensure companies do deliver, external monitoring is critical, as the FCWA suggests in its report on Walmart.

Popular cafes across the UK are specializing in edible food sourced from supermarket waste

Quartz – Thursday 4th June

A great new trend has developed that’s tasty, conscientious and ethical: cafés across Britain are serving sophisticated dishes out of food waste from supermarkets, restaurants and other outlets. Given that Tesco alone threw away nearly 60,000 tonnes of food last year and France has just passed a law forbidding supermarkets to dispose of edible food waste, these are likely to be more than just a flash in the pan. They want to change our wasteful ways and teach people to be more circumspect about their food before they toss it in the bin – a blemish on an otherwise ripe tomato can be cut out; use-by dates are pretty arbitrary and your nose will tell you more about freshness than what’s printed on the package; and even if it’s mushy, you can probably put it into soup or a pie.

So, go along and see what magic can be done. If you’re in Bristol, where the SFT is based, try Skipchen, or if you happen to be in Leeds, go along to a ‘Binnerparty’ at City Junk-tion. The best bit is that they all operate on a ‘pay as you feel basis’. Thank you to the Real Junk Food Project for their brilliant inspiration!

Survey shows children want to know more about farming

Farmers Weekly – Monday 1st June

This provides an interesting contrast to our news piece last week about what one group of British parents know about farming (not much) and their belief that it is ‘inefficient and boring’. Children, it seems, are a lot more engaged and interested. A survey from the British Nutrition Foundation has found that four out of five children want to visit a farm and find out where their food comes from. That’s heartening in an age of increasing disconnection between what we eat and where it comes from.

However, the survey also found that 27% of primary school students had never helped make a meal, which may bear some relation to the 30% of children who are overweight or obese in Britain. Cooking your own food has been found to be the healthiest way of eating. If it hasn’t been cooked in your own home, it’s likely to be packed with things you don’t need – extra fat and sugar or food additives.

One message has really reached its mark, though, and that’s to buy British. Forty per cent of secondary school students say they would prefer to eat food produced in Britain. Buying British also means that you get seasonality thrown in, so it’s a winner all round. Minette Batters, deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union, pointed out how important it is that food and farming are back on the school curriculum, and called for “a whole school approach to food… to make parents aware of where they buy their food from, and to source local, in-season British food.” We think it’s time to get both kids – and their parents – back down on the farm.

Photograph: Serge Melki

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