Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Still here, but Hands Dirty

The stoop labour at Red Lane (and trying to catch up with digging and shipping after all the bad weather), and getting the vegetable garden up and going,  has kept me from the keyboard, and exhaustion means I haven't got much to say, other than my gratitude to all who get their hands dirty  for all they do to keep people fed. We have about six weeks of heavy going through the year, and I know I'm better off physically because of it, and it's a choice, so don't take any of this as a complaint.

Thankfully others are thinking and writing about food, so a couple of pieces of interest.


Food prices to double by 2030, Oxfam warns
May 31, 2011 •

The average price of staple foods will more than double in the next 20 years, leading to an unprecedented reversal in human development, Oxfam has warned.

The world's poorest people, who spend up to 80% of their income of food1, will be hit hardest according to the charity. It said the world is entering an era of permanent food crisis, which is likely to be accompanied by political unrest and will require radical reform of the international food system.

Research to be published on Wednesday forecasts international prices of staples such as maize could rise by as much as 180% by 2030, with half of that rise due to the impacts of climate change.

After decades of steady decline in the number of hungry people around the world, the numbers are rapidly increasing as demand outpaces food production. The average growth rate in agricultural yields has almost halved since 1990 and is set to decline to a fraction of 1% in the next decade.

A devastating combination of factors – climate change, depleting natural resources, a global scramble for land and water, the rush to turn food into biofuels2, a growing global population, and changing diets – have created the conditions for an increase in deep poverty3.

"We are sleepwalking towards an age of avoidable crisis," Oxfam's chief executive, Barbara Stocking, said. "One in seven people on the planet go hungry every day despite the fact that the world is capable of feeding everyone. The food system must be overhauled."

Oxfam called on the prime minister, David Cameron, and other G204 leaders to agree new rules to govern food markets. It wants greater regulation of commodities markets to contain volatility in prices.

It said global food reserves must be urgently increased and western governments must end biofuels policies that divert food to fuel for cars.

It also attacked excessive corporate concentration in the food sector, particularly in grain trading and in seed and agrochemicals.

The Oxfam report followed warnings from the UN last week that food prices are likely to hit new highs in the next few weeks, triggering unrest in developing countries. The average global price of cereals jumped by 71% to a new record in the year to April last month.

Drought in the major crop-growing areas of Europe and intense rain and tornadoes in the US have led to fears of shortfalls in this year's crops.

The World Bank warned last month that rising food prices have pushed 44 million people into poverty since last June.


Toll climbs in European E. coli outbreak
by JESSICA LEEDER  •  May 31, 2011 •

An E. coli outbreak that is ravaging Germany and other parts of Europe – and has prompted government officials there to issue a warning to consumers tempted by raw salad vegetables – is on pace to set a global record.

At least 14 people have died and more than 1,200 have been sickened – 329 seriously – by a rare strain of E. coli that has been linked, although not definitively, to cucumbers imported from Spain. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has described the outbreak as “one of the largest worldwide and the largest ever reported in Germany.”

Food safety officials have been struggling for more than two weeks to pin down the precise source of the adulterant, which first surfaced in Hamburg and has since hit people in Britain, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, most of whom travelled recently in northern Germany.

The ambiguity, coupled with the continuing flood of fatalities, prompted Belgium and Russia to ban vegetable imports from Spain outright while Germany continues its investigation into the source. Fears have prompted the removal of Spanish cucumbers from shelves in the Czech Republic, France and Austria. The boycott prompted Spanish Agriculture Minister Rosa Aguilar to lash out in denial on Monday and to suggest her producers ought to be compensated.

“Our understanding is that the problem does not come from the [country of] origin,” Ms. Aguilar told Agence France-Presse. “The image of Spain is being damaged, Spanish producers are being damaged and the Spanish government is not prepared to accept this situation,” she said.

The bug

Unique to the outbreak is the rare strain of E. coli, called 0104. More common in cases of food-borne illness is E. coli 0157:H7, the culprit in recent cases of tainted hamburger, cookie dough and lettuce affecting the United States and Canada.

Both strains of E. coli produce Shiga toxins, one of the most potent toxins in existence known to cause full-blown haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), a disease that causes bloody diarrhea, liver and kidney damage and in some cases, death. Doctors everywhere struggle to treat the illness.

E. coli has several characteristics that make the organisms dangerous. Present in the intestines of animals and humans, they can survive for long periods on non-sterile surfaces – think countertops, vegetable skins or anywhere from field to table. It takes only a small dose of them to wreak havoc on an immune system.

The carriers

Second to beef, leafy vegetables are the most common sources of E. coli-related illnesses. While beef is often contaminated during processing (manure-coated cowhide can come into contact with raw meat, providing a gateway for E. coli into the supply chain), the bacteria is usually killed during high-temperature cooking processes.

With raw vegetables, it’s a different story. If grown outdoors, vegetables can become contaminated with E. coli carried by chicken, deer, sheep, cattle or pigs snacking in the spinach patch, or with water that has itself been contaminated by feces from one of those animals.

While washing vegetables well usually removes bacteria, sometimes it can grow right into the plant structure. In those rare cases, washing the lettuce or vegetable is a futile effort. The bacteria will remain unless the vegetables are cooked at a temperature hot enough to kill them off. Eaten raw, contaminated vegetables can be deadly. This can occur in any country, regardless of the rigour of its food-safety system.

A problem in need of a global solution

German food safety officials have yet to pinpoint where E. coli entered their food chain. Regardless of where the weak point lurks, food-safety experts say the solution is a more robust global recall system.

A 2008 study done by AMR Research found that, on average, it takes 18 days for large food manufacturers to sense the need for a recall and issue one. There is no question of the need to narrow that timeline – cutting it down would potentially reduce the number of sicknesses in a given outbreak. Robert Tauxe, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s deputy director of food-borne, bacterial and mycotic diseases, said during a talk last year that there is no consensus on how to do this.

Governments cannot force retailers or manufacturers to issue recalls. Establishing the need and scope of a recall hinges on how many cases of a particular illness have been recorded by public health authorities. But the system of collating records of those cases is imperfect: Not all doctors are aware of the importance of reporting food-related illnesses to regional health authorities; not all regional authorities that get the information send it on to the appropriate provincial, state or national officials given the task of identifying illness clusters that are less concentrated in our increasingly global food system.

When illness clusters are identified and recalls are issued, few proceed smoothly. There is no universal labelling system for food; a wholesaler might work with 10 different labelling or packaging systems customized to the likes of 10 different suppliers who may or may not repackage the product for an end customer. With unbranded fresh fruit and vegetables that come unmarked in large boxes and are mixed with other similar-sized vegetables from different suppliers before being loaded onto grocery shelves, recalls are extremely tough to manage.

John Keogh, senior vice-president responsible for product safety and recalls for GS1, a global non-profit industry standards group, said the solution is a global standard for product recalls.

Developed by GS1 over the past two years, the system is being implemented by Australia and New Zealand this year. The hope is that other countries, including Germany, where officials met with Mr. Keogh recently, will follow suit.

Without one, the international community will continue to struggle through outbreaks. “They’re not all talking the same language,” he said.

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