Archive for the ‘USDA’ Category

That Burger’s Gonna Cost You

August 10, 2011

Feeling a little sticker-shock after eating at your favorite restaurant lately? Following nearly half-a-century of record low prices, Americans are experiencing something folks in much of the rest of the world have been enduring for the past couple of years: rising food costs.

Now 3 to 4 percent tastier.

That burger and shake is gonna cost you more from here on out.

While food-service industry watchers have been warning about this for some time, the United States Department of Agriculture pretty much confirmed that last month with its food price outlook for 2011 and 2012. Food purchased in restaurants, according to the Consumer Price Index, is expected to rise 3 to 4-percent over the year while groceries purchased for consumption at home are expected to rise between 3.5 and 4.5-percent over the same period.

Take the cost of pork, for example. According to the USDA, pork prices are 8.5-percent higher than they were last year at this time. Dairy is more than 7-percent higher than this time last year, and produce is rising, as well. An interesting side note: beef prices are falling as I write this because cattle-ranchers throughout much of the U.S. are being forced to sell off their herds because of drought conditions across the country. That temporary reduction in consumer prices won’t last for long, though.

While a number of causes might come into play here, one in particular is hitting the restaurant industry particularly hard: its own success. A growing middle class around the world, coupled with a growing demand for convenience and restaurant foods, is putting a serious crimp in the world’s supply of commodity foods. Over the past decade, many American quick-service companies – they prefer “quick service” to “fast food” – have begun expanding overseas to fill the demand of newly emerging markets in places like China and India.

We haven’t seen much impact from that until now. Even as commodity prices were increasing, and exports of American-produced commodities to foreign markets increased, decreasing the availability of those commodities here in the U.S., restaurateurs were reluctant to raise prices in the midst of a worsening economy. Consequently, many chains began offering specials to keep their cash-strapped customers coming in but that could only go on for so long.

“The shifting reality is one the nation’s quick-service restaurants can no longer overlook,” noted trade journal QSR Magazine in its August issue. “Some may alter prices; some may explore more sustainable, savvy buying programs; and others may simply hope the world’s supply-and-demand scale finds its equilibrium.”

That may take a while. Earlier this year, marketing research firm Blue Shift predicted a full 5-percent increase in menu prices before 2011 is finished but noted, too, that price increases probably won’t contribute much at all to overall profitability. While prices may rise as restaurants try to recoup their costs, overall profitability may fall, Blue Shift said, by as much as 10 or 11-percent.


Your Recall Hit Parade

July 4, 2009

Dairy recalls two years worth of product

A major recall by a Minnesota dairy cooperative is now beginning to play out across the country. Plainview Milk Products Association last weekend issued a recall for several of its products after one of its customers found traces of Salmonella contamination in a product containing ingredients from Plainview (FDA recall info here). Environmental tests conducted at the Plainview plant by the Food and Drug Administration “found some positive test results for Salmonella” in swabs from “walls, ceilings, floors, and equipment” according to a release from the cooperative. Plainview is recalling product from the last two years of production, as a result.

The company doesn’t sell directly to consumers but, instead, produces whey protein, milk powder, gums, and fruit stabilizers for sale to food makers across the United States. The cooperative also produces fluid milk products, but these are not affected by the recall. Plainview customers who have issued recalls so far include:

  • CPI Foods, which is recalling 15,000 packets of non-fat dry milk distributed to various community service companies in Arizona, Kentucky, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia.
  • NOW Foods, a nationwide producer of dietary supplements and natural foods, has recalled 12 of its whey protein products.
  • Stop & Shop Supermarkets, a New England chain, has recalled Stop & Shop Nonfat Dried Milk, which is sold in 5 and 10 packs of 16-ounce and 32-ounce packets, respectively.
  • Traditions, which has recalled ILS Meals Home Delivery Meal Service prepackaged meal kits, and Traditions Meal Solutions prepackaged meal kits. These were distributed nationwide and were made between January 28, 2008, and June 5, 2009. Tradition’s products were distributed to food distributors and regional nutrition service providers.

Pierogis with a little something extra

These dumplings may contain a bit more than you bargained for. Grandma’s Food of Buffalo, N.Y., is recalling more than 200,000 pounds of its frozen pierogies, pelmenis, and other assorted dumplings because they contain Amaranth #2, a dye which has been banned in the United States since 1976. The dumplings were made between June 1 and 5. Additional information


Tuna steaks recalled

New Englanders have been cautioned by the Food and Drug Administration about a bad batch of tuna steaks. North Coast Seafood is recalling tuna steaks sold between June 20 and 24 at Shaw’s, Star Market, and Big Y Stores, located throughout the region. The fish may have high levels of histamine and could cause scombroid poisoning. There were three cases reported by July 1. Additional information

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Is organic farming better for animal health?

May 28, 2009
Pamela Ruegg (Photo: University of Wisconsin)

Pamela Ruegg (Photo: University of Wisconsin)

Are organic farming methods better for animal health? A study being conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture is looking for the answer to that question.

One aspect of the study is being lead by Pamela Ruegg, a professor and extension milk quality specialist in the Department of Dairy Science at the University of Wisconsin. The study, slated to last for 18 months, will examine the impact of organic farming methods on livestock. Researchers expect to conduct at least 300 visits to organic dairy operations throughout the country.

“The most important focus is to identify practices that help farmers optimize animal health and well being,” Ruegg said in a story that appeared in “Control of mastitis, production of high quality milk and management practices that contribute to enhanced animal well being are all of interest to us.”

Ruegg has done extensive work in mastitis causes and treatment. Mastitis is an infection of the udders that poses an ongoing and expensive challenge for dairy farmers. The infection sets in when cows’ udders become irritated due to rough treatment during milking or other injuries. Cows which are injected with the synthetic growth hormone rBGH are more prone to mastitis, as well.

More narrowly focused studies have been conducted in Europe and have found that dairy cattle on organic farms fare better when it comes to mastitis infection overall, but one study noted that dairy cows treated with conventional methods actually did better during dry periods when they were not being milked. Another study from Sweden suggests that conventionally managed cows subject to high milk production are also more prone to mastitis.

Consumers want more action by the FDA, poll finds

November 20, 2008

Consumers want more inspections of food processing plants, according to a poll by Consumer Reports. While the country’s meat processing plants must be inspected daily by the United Stated Department of Agriculture, those plants that fall under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration have no such requirements.

“While 73 percent polled currently regard the overall food supply as safe, nearly half (48%) said their confidence in the safety of the nation’s food supply has decreased,” said Consumer Reports in a press release. “A bare majority of Americans feel the government is doing all it can to ensure food safety (54%). Eighty-three percent of respondents are concerned with harmful bacteria or chemicals in food and 81 percent are concerned with the safety of imported food.”

Consumers are worried, too, about FDA plans to not require labeling of cloned or genetically engineered meat. That issue will become even more visible as the FDA has just closed the public comment period on its draft plan for how it will approve genetically engineered animals.

Food processors dismayed by public distrust

November 13, 2008
Surprise! Americans don’t trust big food processors.

Late last month, industry journal Meat and Poultry published a commentary expressing surprise and disappointment that public faith in the country’s large meat processors was at a critical low.

“We’re losing significant ground on food safety,” Charlie Arnot, CEO of [Center for Food Integrity], which is supported by several universities as well as major industry trade associations including the National Pork Producers Council and American Farm Bureau Federation. “Ten years ago, consumers saw an outbreak or recall as a food-safety aberration, but now they believe these problems are the norm. Our survey shows that Americans are more concerned about food safety than they are about the war in Iraq.” (Meat & Poultry, Oct. 24, 2008)

The Center for Food Integrity, based in Kansas City, Mo., conducted a survey last July of 2,000 American adults. The findings? After being asked to rate the statement “I am confident in the safety of the food I eat” people responded with a mean score of 5.70 out of a possible 10, with 0 being the lowest rating on the scale. Even worse, although hardly surprising given the disasters in food safety over the past couple of years, the mean score dropped even lower – to 4.68 – with the statement “Government food safety agencies are doing a good job ensuring the safety of the food we eat.”

According to the survey, Americans are far more trusting of individuals – hence the rising popularity of the locavore movement and CSA farms – than they are of corporate entities.

For the complete article, and more telling statistics, click here (You’ll need to register to read it, but registration is free).

Consumer groups object to proposed organic standards for seafood

November 7, 2008

Pushing your cart through the grocery aisles, it’s difficult not to notice the sheer number of organic products that have hit the shelves in the past decade. With more and more mainstream grocers and food producers hoping to cash in on the wide interest in organic food, the selection has probably never been so good: meats, dairy products, snack items, fruits and vegetables, and grains. You name it, and it’s probably available in an organic version.

Well, almost.

Seafood is notable more for its absence than its strong presence in the organic foods section, but there are those who hope to change that. Increasingly, many US seafood producers are fighting to acquire the organic label, but the problem is that the United States Department of Agriculture has yet to actually produce any guidelines for organic seafood. If they did it for eggs, why can’t they do it for crabs?

It isn’t that easy. Do wild fish, which consume other wild fish, qualify as organic? If the fish they’ve eaten are exposed to mercury or other pollutants, doesn’t that pose a few problems for organic labeling? It gets even more complex.

Many of the species of fish and other aquatic life processors are hoping to label organic are grown on fish farms, or open ocean net pens, which critics insist are unhealthy not only for the seafood in question, but for consumers. According to the organization Food and Water Watch, “Fish wastes, excess food, fish escapes, antibiotics, and various chemicals from fish farms can all result in water pollution and harm surrounding habitats by poisoning wildlife and causing other disturbances.”

Farmed fish grown in crowded conditions are vulnerable to disease, and many growers – like their landlubber counterparts – dish out high levels of antibiotics to keep them “healthy” although use of antibiotics has decreased. Farmed fish are also particularly vulnerable to parasites such as sea lice; wild fish swimming through areas with heavy concentrations of farmed fish are then exposed themselves to disease, wastes, and parasites from the farms. Some producers have even suggested using old off shore oil rigs as anchors for fish farms. It sounds like a nice way to reuse rigs, but the fish are quite possibly exposed to mercury or other wastes from the rigs. Environmentalists object to the idea on additional grounds: such use of oil rigs could very well give oil companies a free ticket to avoid the responsibility of dismantling the rigs once they’re no longer in service.

Next week, the National Organics Standards Board is meeting to discuss standards for organic fish. Consumer groups are very concerned about the proposals which would allow the use of wild fish as food for farmed fish. As the recommendations from the NOSB Proposed Organic Aquaculture Standards suggests:

To ensure that diets are nutritionally complete at the inception of USDA certified organic aquaculture, the NOSB proposes that the carcasses, viscera, and trimmings from wildcaught fish be allowed to provide for fish meal and fish oil in a limited, prescribed fashion. This will allow the nascent USDA certified organic aquaculture industry the needed time to establish a critical mass of basic feed resources for itself. OFPA Section 2107(c)(1) supports this.

Consumers Union, the consumer watchdog group that publishes Consumer Reports, replied rather incredulously, “The board recommends that fish can be labeled ‘organic’ even if they’ve been fed wild fish, which come from polluted environments and are high in mercury and PCBs. Potentially toxic organic fish? That defeats the whole purpose.”