News bites, November 2009

This article was originally published in November 2009

USDA to clarify “natural”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is soliciting public comments to clarify its definitions of “natural” and “naturally raised” for meat and poultry products. The USDA is asking whether “natural flavoring(s)” or technologies to extend shelf life, such as steam or ultra-pasteurization, high-pressure processing, and “modified atmosphere packaging” (using carbon monoxide) should be allowed for products labeled “natural.” (

USDA restores pesticide database

The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) has restored funding to collect annual data on pesticide use for agricultural crops. NASS collected pesticide data involving corn, soybeans, cotton, wheat, grains, fruits and vegetables since the early 1990s but most of the program was suspended in 2006.

The new Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, recently reinstated the program after hearing from academics, scientists and consumer groups (including PCC), who argued that it’s the only free, publicly available resource on pesticide use and risks. See the September 2008 Sound Consumer for details. (Center for Food Safety)

GE sugar beets stopped

A federal judge has ruled that genetically engineered (GE) sugar beets were approved illegally. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White found that planting GE sugar beets could eliminate a farmer’s choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or a consumer’s choice to eat non-genetically engineered food. The USDA must prepare an environmental impact statement and include public input. (Organic Seed Alliance)

Canada challenges COOL

Canada has filed a formal complaint to the World Trade Organization (WTO), claiming the U.S. country of origin labeling law (COOL) does not comply with WTO trade policies. COOL is a provision of the 2008 Farm Bill that requires beef, lamb, pork, chicken, goat, some perishable fruits, vegetables and nuts to be labelled which where they were grown. Canada says COOL is causing unfair discrimination against its cattle and hog producers in the U.S. market. (USDA)

France abuzz with urban beekeeping

In New York City, bees are listed as “venomous insects” and beekeeping is punishable by a $2,000 fine. But in other cities such as Berlin, London, Tokyo, Washington, D.C. and Paris, urban beekeeping is publicly encouraged, especially since Colony Collapse Disorder has decimated bee populations.

In Paris, beehives are on the roof of the Grand Palais, the Opera Bastille, and the gilded dome of the Palais Garnier. Those urban bees are producing 110 to 130 pounds of honey per harvest with a death rate in the colonies of three to five percent. In France’s countryside, however, bees are producing only 20 to 40 pounds of honey, with a death rate of 30 to 40 percent — raising alarm among experts. (Associated Press)

Protecting local farmland

Seattle’s city council has adopted a resolution to work with King County to protect agricultural properties that supply local food. The county has identified 248 development rights on agricultural properties that have rural zoning but still could be subdivided. By transferring development rights into the city, farmers still could realize financial gains but continue farming, while the land is protected from being developed forever. (Seattle City Council)

Patenting genes for climate change

Monsanto and other biotech firms are identifying “climate genes” in African crops able to withstand drought, heat and salinity and applying for patents. The companies are claiming “climate gene” sequences in sorghum, millet, maize, peanut, cotton, wheat, manioc, sugar cane and banana. (African Centre for Biosafety)

Brain not fooled by sugar substitute

More research suggests that even when artificial sweeteners fool the taste buds, they don’t fool our brains. A study in the Netherlands measured brain responses in people sipping two versions of a sweetened beverage, one with sugar and one with artificial sweeteners. Subjects often guessed wrong on which drink was which, but brain scans revealed consistent differences in how the brain responded. Only the sugared drink prompted the brain to perceive calories consumed. (Los Angeles Times)

Organic milk linked to fewer allergies

A peer-reviewed study in Holland has found that infants raised on organic dairy products are a third (36 percent) less likely to suffer from allergies, asthma and eczema in the first two years of life. The difference was found only when organic dairy products, such as milk, yogurt and cheese, were chosen exclusively. Researchers believe the findings may be due to higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid found in organic dairy. (British Journal of Nutrition/Daily Record UK)

Bluefin tuna ban blocked

Five European countries have blocked a proposal to ban trade in bluefin tuna, an endangered species that’s prized for sushi. The European Commission had agreed to vote to prohibit bluefin tuna fishing, at least temporarily. The proposed ban was supported by 21 European countries, but Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Malta and Cyprus have blocked it. (The Guardian)

Also in this issue

Just a pinch — traditional spices

A pinch of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Adding just a bit of the traditional holiday spices — cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger — can provide a bounty of health benefits, while seasoning your cooking.

Letters to the editor, November 2009

Giving thanks, Advocating for good food, Supporting WSU, and more

Organic cotton: As important as organic food

When you think about supporting organic agriculture and choosing sustainably produced products, don’t forget cotton — the world’s most important non-food crop. Non-organic cotton is considered the world’s “dirtiest” crop by the Environmental Justice Foundation.