A Food Manifesto for the Future

For decades, Americans believed that we had the world’s healthiest and safest diet. We worried little about this diet’s effect on the environment or on the lives of the animals (or even the workers) it relies upon. Nor did we worry about its ability to endure — that is, its sustainability.

That didn’t mean all was well. And we’ve come to recognize that our diet is unhealthful and unsafe. Many food production workers labor in difficult, even deplorable, conditions, and animals are produced as if they were widgets. It would be hard to devise a more wasteful, damaging, unsustainable system.


Here are some ideas — frequently discussed, but sadly not yet implemented — that would make the growing, preparation and consumption of food healthier, saner, more productive, less damaging and more enduring. In no particular order:

  • End government subsidies to processed food. We grow more corn for livestock and cars than for humans, and it’s subsidized by more than $3 billion annually; most of it is processed beyond recognition. The story is similar for other crops, including soy: 98 percent of soybean meal becomes livestock feed, while most soybean oil is used in processed foods. Meanwhile, the marketers of the junk food made from these crops receive tax write-offs for the costs of promoting their wares. Total agricultural subsidies in 2009 were around $16 billion, which would pay for a great many of the ideas that follow.
  • Begin subsidies to those who produce and sell actual food for direct consumption. Small farmers and their employees need to make living wages. Markets — from super- to farmers’ — should be supported when they open in so-called food deserts and when they focus on real food rather than junk food. And, of course, we should immediately increase subsidies for school lunches so we can feed our youth more real food.
  • Break up the U.S. Department of Agriculture and empower the Food and Drug Administration. Currently, the U.S.D.A. counts among its missions both expanding markets for agricultural products (like corn and soy!) and providing nutrition education. These goals are at odds with each other; you can’t sell garbage while telling people not to eat it, and we need an agency devoted to encouraging sane eating. Meanwhile, the F.D.A. must be given expanded powers to ensure the safety of our food supply. (Food-related deaths are far more common than those resulting from terrorism, yet the F.D.A.’s budget is about one-fifteenth that of Homeland Security.)
  • Outlaw concentrated animal feeding operations and encourage the development of sustainable animal husbandry. The concentrated system degrades the environment, directly and indirectly, while torturing animals and producing tainted meat, poultry, eggs, and, more recently, fish. Sustainable methods of producing meat for consumption exist. At the same time, we must educate and encourage Americans to eat differently. It’s difficult to find a principled nutrition and health expert who doesn’t believe that a largely plant-based diet is the way to promote health and attack chronic diseases, which are now bigger killers, worldwide, than communicable ones. Furthermore, plant-based diets ease environmental stress, including global warming.
  • Encourage and subsidize home cooking. (Someday soon, I’ll write about my idea for a new Civilian Cooking Corps.) When people cook their own food, they make better choices. When families eat together, they’re more stable. We should provide food education for children (a new form of home ec, anyone?), cooking classes for anyone who wants them and even cooking assistance for those unable to cook for themselves.
  • Tax the marketing and sale of unhealthful foods. Another budget booster. This isn’t nanny-state paternalism but an accepted role of government: public health. If you support seat-belt, tobacco and alcohol laws, sewer systems and traffic lights, you should support legislation curbing the relentless marketing of soda and other foods that are hazardous to our health — including the sacred cheeseburger and fries.
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  • Reduce waste and encourage recycling. The environmental stress incurred by unabsorbed fertilizer cannot be overestimated, and has caused, for example, a 6,000-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is probably more damaging than the BP oil spill. And some estimates indicate that we waste half the food that’s grown. A careful look at ways to reduce waste and promote recycling is in order.
  • Mandate truth in labeling. Nearly everything labeled “healthy” or “natural” is not. It’s probably too much to ask that “vitamin water” be called “sugar water with vitamins,” but that’s precisely what real truth in labeling would mean.
  • Reinvest in research geared toward leading a global movement in sustainable agriculture, combining technology and tradition to create a new and meaningful Green Revolution.

I’ll expand on these issues (and more) in the future, but the essential message is this: food and everything surrounding it is a crucial matter of personal and public health, of national and global security. At stake is not only the health of humans but that of the earth.

This column appeared in print on February 2, 2011. It will appear in Opinionator regularly.



Your Extra Virgin Olive Oil Is Lying to You. It’s Not Its First Time.

A new study finds that extra virgin olive oil is often anything but. What can you do to get the pure olive oil you’re paying for?

Ah yes, the California dream. Freeways, blue jeans, Craigslist, iPhones, salad greens, fish tacos. What else could you want? How about pristine extra-virgin olive oil?

While the Golden State may be better known for the dry and meaty table olives that were first planted by Franciscan missionaries, more and more Californians have been coaxing extra-virgin oils from trees planted in the more than 200 orchards across the state. It’s the only U.S. state to commercially produce olives. And as early as 1891, producers established their condition of success—“a perfect guarantee of purity.”

California oils are still living up to today’s rubric of purity, “extra virgin”—the marketing term for unheated, unrefined oil with low acidity and superior taste. Well, at least 90 percent of the time they live up to the claim, researchers at the University of California at Davis’s Olive Center found. On the other hand, researchers found that two-thirds of the imported brands they tested failed to meet internationally accepted chemical standards for extra virgin olive oil—for things like chlorophyll and the kinds of organic acids unique to olives. Major brands like Bertolli, Rachael Ray, 365 100 Percent Italian, and Newman’s Own Organic appeared to contain either lesser quality oils or had been damaged from the oil’s natural oxidation process.

Which means these oils could have been extra virgin at the time of pressing, but by the time they reached store shelves, they didn’t live up to their claims. But as Mort Rosenblum, the author of Olives, told me, “Given the premium put on extra virgin oil, there is pressure to apply the label. I’d not be surprised to see some outrig

ht fudging.”

The report ushered in an international pissing contest, whereby the International Olive Oil Council, an intergovernmental organization based in Madrid, called into question the study’s funding, which came in part from California Olive Oil Council, a private trade group. The primary U.S. importer, North American Olive Oil Association, whose members include the Italian producers, also faulted the study for using some scientific methods not recognized by international standards.

In the United States, because the Food and Drug Administration considers olive oil fraud rare, the agency does not test oils for adulteration and relies on trade groups, according to a piece in The New Yorker. In other words, olive oil producers police themselves. The government treats the “extra virgin” label as a relatively harmless marketing ploy, only pursuing tainted or phony oil when it’s dangerous to our health.

Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to adopt a new set of labeling standards in October, the rules are voluntary. Paul Vossen, University of California farm advisor, told the Los Angeles Times, “It’s like saying you have to stop at stop signs, but there are no cops at the corner. Standards are a good start, but enforcement is important.” (In the European Union, the same kind of voluntary rules permit oil to be sold as “Italian” even if it contains only trace amounts of actual Italian olive oil.)

While virginity claims might seem frivolous, the U.S. olive oil market is worth $1.5 billion—and demand is only growing for what’s billed as the safest, healthiest, least damaging oil. Just tune into Rachael Ray to hear her cooing about EVOO (extra virgin olive oil). Where there’s money to be made with valuable food, there will always be adulteration and misleading claims—whether that’s water injected into processed hams or Chinese mushrooms masquerading as truffles. And while people might believe the tiny island city of Modena produces hundreds of thousands of gallons of balsamic vinegar, let’s be serious, a considerable portion of the world’s “balsamic” is wine vinegar with caramel coloring.

Perhaps this study should simply wake us up to the questionable nature of food purity claims. So much of our olive oil is imported under labels that obfuscate origin, consumers rarely, if ever, can verify the purity of extra virgin oils at the time of pu


Until better assurances can be made, claims like these should be taken with a healthy pinch of salt. Either that, or consumers should look into more vulgar local cooking alternatives. You can buy lard anywhere.


How brands fared in olive oil study by researchers

A study by researchers from the University of California, Davis, found many of the olive oils lining supermarket shelves in the United States are not the top-grade extra-virgin oils their labels proclaim. It analyzed samples from 19 randomly selected, widely distributed brands purchased from retailers in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and Los Angeles.

The Associated Press


A study by researchers from the University of California, Davis, found many of the olive oils lining supermarket shelves in the United States are not the top-grade extra-virgin oils their labels proclaim. It analyzed samples from 19 randomly selected, widely distributed brands purchased from retailers in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and Los Angeles.

The study found th

at 69 percent of imported oils and 10 percent of domestic oils sampled did not meet the international standards that define the pure, cold-pressed, olive oils that deserve the extra virgin title. Three samples of each imported oil and two samples of each domestic oil were tested.

Here’s a look at how the olive oil brands fared in the study:


Filippo Berio Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Two out of three samples failed.

Bertolli Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Three of three samples failed.

Pompeian Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Three of three samples failed.

Colavita E

xtra Virgin Olive Oil: Two of three samples failed.

Star Extra Virgin Olive Oil: One of three samples failed.

Carapelli Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Three of three samples failed.

Newman’s Own Organics Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Two of three samples failed.


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Mezzetta Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Three of three samples failed.

Mazola Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Three of three samples failed.

Rachael Ray Extra Tasty Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Two of three samples failed.

Kirkland Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil: All samples passed.

Great Value 100 percent Extra Virgin Olive Oil: One of three samples failed.

Safeway Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Two of three samples failed.

365 Everyday Value 100 percent Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Two of three samples failed.


Corto Olive Extra Virgin Olive Oil: All samples passed.

California Olive Ranch Extra Virgin Olive Oil: All samples passed.

McEvoy Ranch Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil: All samples passed.

Bariani Olive Oil Extra Virgin Olive Oil: One of two samples failed.

Lucero (Ascolano) Extra Virgin Olive Oil: All samples passed.