Tyson Foods to phase out use of human antibiotics on chickens by 2017

The Guardian – Tuesday 28th April

Tyson announces that it will “strive to eliminate” the use of human antibiotics in its chicken production. Note the language here – there’s lots of wriggle room. The statement is aspirational but also non-committal. Nevertheless the National Resources Defense Council, an important campaigner for stopping the overuse of antibiotics in farming, has called Tyson’s decision “the tipping point for getting the chicken industry off antibiotics”.

Indeed, there does seem to be the aura of change around the industry. Perdue has made a similar commitment and McDonalds, Chipotle, Panera and other food companies are pushing suppliers to eliminate human antibiotic use in farm animals. It’s hard to argue that industry is not moving in the right direction. But, in many ways, these commitments aren’t always quite what they seem. Big, bold headline statements like the one in this Guardian article are a little less bold when you get to the fine print.

Civil Eats gives a good rundown on what’s really embedded in Tyson’s statement. For starters, Tyson has only made this promise in relation to its US operations – but it is a multinational company with factories in China, India and Mexico, and the problem with antibiotic resistance is a global one. Reigning in its antibiotic use in US birds is pretty ineffective if Tyson doesn’t do the same everywhere it produces chickens. Further, Tyson works with 6,000 contract farmers and it is unclear whether these farmers would also be expected to adhere to Tyson’s commitment. So, there are some big gaps in their ‘phase-out’. While it is hoped they will follow their pledge through all of their operations and suppliers, it’s not certain that they will.

But, as Civil Eats points out, what really undercuts Tyson’s commitment, along with those of other companies, is its purely voluntary nature. There are no meaningful federal government regulations yet in place to control the use of antibiotics in farm animals. While there has been much made of what is seen as ‘industry-led’ change, we’re not sure that putting industry in charge of its own regulation is the best way forward with something so critically important: overuse of human antibiotics in farming could have a devastating impact on the future of human medicine. Antibiotics need rigorous and binding regulation and that’s not likely to come voluntarily any time soon. Further, going ‘antibiotic-free’ has a nice ring to it for marketing purposes, but there is much to be desired in terms of the substance of this designation – see our piece on the antibiotic-free label for more on this.

The vegetable patches of east London are the hopes of a new generation

The Guardian – Thursday 30th April

You might think that cities would be the last place for people to reconnect with their food. But it is in cities that much of the activism around sustainable food is generated. Urban growing is spreading through small-scale local community projects, regenerating damaged cities and providing local people with fresh food. London is a hotbed of activity and this blog takes a closer look at some of the projects and how they are working to help people re-engage with what and how they eat.

In a world dominated by processed fast food many of us forget how essential growing food and cooking it is. To engage directly in growing food – putting seeds in the ground and raising up food out of the soil – might seem somewhat Neanderthal and spending an hour in the kitchen cooking up this food to eat may seem a complete waste of time. But our lost connection to food has an array of damaging impacts that the skills of growing and cooking might just help to repair.

Obesity and soil degradation are just two of these impacts. This week it was reported that obesity is climbing at such a rate in Britain that by 2030, 74% of men and 64% of women are predicted to be overweight. The recent Global Soil Week raised awareness of the widespread degradation and erosion of our soils, a threat that is arguably on a par with climate change. It’s a disappearing and critical natural resource, the loss of which will make it very hard to eat. If we return to growing and cooking our food in greater numbers and with care for the quality of our health and environment, we could turn around these two very real problems.

Thankfully, there is a growing group of evangelists waiting to convert the urban masses. Projects such as Made in Hackney and Growing Communities prove that “you can do something in a small space in an urban area”. They do more than just provide affordable fresh food: they give people the critical life skills they need to preserve their health and well-being while ensuring that a younger generation knows where food comes from and values what it eats.

The thing about growing and cooking your own food is that it gives you some control over it, and to borrow Ron Finley’s great line “Growing your own food is like printing your own money.” With nearly a million people using food banks, learning to grow is more than a nice hobby: it’s a potential lifeline. And with fresh food available, there are options beyond the corner take-away.

Chipotle to stop serving genetically altered ingredients

New York Times – Wednesday 26th April

This story on Chipotle and what it takes to go (largely) GMO-free is a testament to just how imbricated US farming is with genetically engineered crops. Chipotle is a fast-food restaurant committed to the ethics of its food. In large measure it has shown that fast food can be good food when some principles are involved.

Chipotle’s food is primarily made with fresh unprocessed ingredients and their entire menu has just 68 ingredients “including salt and pepper”. The company is eliminating GMOs from its food, but admits that the sale of soft drinks and some other ingredients and products still carry them. It is the first major restaurant chain to make a commitment like this, and it has not proved easy – GMOs are everywhere. Chipotle, also, isn’t small. It has 1,800 stores across the United States, so when it needs an ingredient it needs a lot of it, and there in lies the rub. If you are producing a lot of something, you’re probably producing it for the industrial system, which means GMOs.

Chipotle has had to work hard to find suppliers who can deliver what it needs and it sometimes pays more for its non-GMO ingredients. For Chipotle, the integrity of its food is critical to its brand so it is willing to go the extra mile.

Pepsi to drop artificial sweetener aspartame

BBC News – Monday 27th April

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Artificial sweeteners have been the soft drinks’ answer to the obesity epidemic. As the dangers of sugar to our health become ever-more apparent, fake sugar has become ever-more popular. A new generation of sweeteners, with significantly fewer or no calories, are replacing sugar in many drinks. Aspartame is one of the older artificial sweeteners and it’s been around for years. Most of us would easily recognise it as the slightly unsatisfying taste in Diet Coke and Pepsi.

A wide range of concerns and side-effects have been raised about the side-effects and safety of aspartame and PepsiCo has decided that it will remove the sweetener from its cans of coke in the United States. However, we can go on enjoying its lovely chemicalised flavour here in Britain because, according to the company, “consumers in the UK market love Diet Pepsi just as it is today.” Lucky us!

Concerns about artificial sweeteners have been ongoing. With their increasing popularity in the food industry, there is a real need to better understand how they work and the effects they have on health. Research has shown that they miscommunicate their calorie count to the gut and may contribute to an increase in weight; this is further complicated by the effect they have on the hormone insulin, again increasing hunger and eating. As a result of all this, they could give you diabetes. While sugar may not be good for you, neither, it seems, is artificial sugar.

Great gut extinction: has modern life destroyed our health?

BBC News – Sunday 3rd May

As we learn more and more about the vital role that our microbiome (the vast multitude of micro-organisms that live in and on us) plays in health, there is growing concern that modern life is waging war on them. Most of us have degraded microbiomes, meaning the composition of our microbiomes are changing and a whole lot fewer of the good micro-organisms are living on us than should be. Many diseases and disorders currently on the increase – including auto-immune disorders and obesity – are thought to be linked to this.

How do we know this? Because there are still indigenous people around the world living in almost total isolation from modern society – remarkable as that sounds. The health of these populations can be compared with that of people living in the modern world.

In 2008, a military helicopter spotted an unknown group of 15,000 Yanomami people living in southern Venezuela. It’s believed that these semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, previously unchartered, have never been exposed to modern civilisation. As a result, they have provided an ideal study group for evaluating what’s happening to our microbiomes – because it’s not been happening to theirs. These Yanomami have a 40% wider diversity of skin and gut microbes than those of us living in the modern world.

The research coming out of studies on this group shows the significance of the symbiotic microbial community we live with and how it could be repaired. The studies also turn up interesting information on how anti-microbial resistance works: this Yanomami population have resistant genes in their microbiomes that aren’t ‘turned-on’, meaning that resistance resides naturally in our bodies and is not ‘caused’ by antibiotic use, though it is amplified by it. All this helps researchers to understand how we might repair our microbiomes and treat many of our modern ailments.

Photographs: Annelie Bernhart and Mike Mozart

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