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News for May 12, 2010

Is Raw Milk Safe?

Over the past three years, the popularity of unpasteurized milk – or raw milk, as it’s sometimes called – has grown across the country. Advocates say heat-treating milk destroys enzymes and nutrients, while detractors say it's necessary to keep people from getting sick. Battles over how milk is sold and regulated have exploded. 

Ten states, including Maine, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, have made it legal to sell unpasteurized milk in stores. Meanwhile, other states are fighting to make it easier to purchase. In Wisconsin, Governor Jim Doyle indicated last month that he’ll sign a bill – already passed by the senate and assembly - legalizing and regulating the sale of raw milk between farmers and consumers. In Massachusetts, raw milk supporters this week protested the fact that they ONLY have this right. They’d like to be able to buy milk from more places than the state’s 27 regulated farms. And in many states like New Jersey, raw milk supporters secretly run unpasteurized milk across state lines.

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Book reviews: Three books about organic food

Let's eat! No two words could be more universal or -- according to three new books -- more controversial. These authors have different stories to tell, different flags to wave, but they're all marching forward in agreement on one thing: The food we eat is in danger, and so is our environment. Readers who open these covers will hear the shouting on every page: It's time to take action! It's time, in short, for a food fight.

When twin brothers Ron and Arnie Koss launched their business in the mid-1980s, they found themselves on the front lines of a brand-new movement. Their weapon of choice? Baby food -- the first organic baby food in the United States. "Our goal was to make the world a better place," writes Ron Koss, "nothing less. This is how we would define 'success.' This was our bottom line." A rip-roaring entrepreneurial tale, The Earth's Best Story (Chelsea Green; paperback, $19.95) is packed with drama, from exploding equipment and workers drenched in apple juice to relentless financial crises and complex boardroom battles. Who knew baby food would be such treacherous terrain? Writing in a sort of back-and-forth, journal-entry format that some may find too detailed and confessional, the Koss brothers offer a candid account of their start-up venture, from the moment of inspiration to the bittersweet end. Although the brothers wound up losing control of the company (and leaving even before it was sold to Heinz in 1996), their efforts helped forge a new organic path through the mainstream food wilderness, and that's a lasting victory.

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Safer food, and soon

Two-thirds of the chickens sold in this country are contaminated with campylobacter or salmonella or both. And that's a significant improvement over three years ago, when 80% of the chickens contained at least one of those kinds of bacteria, according to Consumers Union. So of course the U.S. Department of Agriculture is right to be raising its standards to guard against poultry contamination, which sickens more than 60,000 people a year. But this is chicken feed compared with the 76 million people who fall prey to food poisoning each year in the United States. For that, the country needs to overhaul its food safety system — and finally, after eight months of letting it languish, the Senate is again taking up legislation that would tighten food tracking and oversight.

The House passed its version in July 2009, but the Senate bill stalled. Recently, though, it picked up support and is expected to come to the floor this month. Both versions of the legislation would require more frequent inspections by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, increase its staffing and empower it to mandate recalls of tainted food. They also would authorize the secretary of Health and Human Services to implement a tracking system so that when there is an outbreak of food poisoning — for example, the 1,300 people who fell ill from eating salsa in 2008 that confounded investigators for weeks — the government can quickly track the source of the contamination.

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USDA’s Vilsack says Biofuels plant is future of U.S. energy

The Obama Administration’s quest to wean the nation off foreign oil by turning to renewable energy sources brought U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to Middletown Friday.

Vilsack, along with Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Reading, and U.S. Rep. Tim Holden, D-Pa., toured the Middletown BioFuels plant on Emaus Street.

Middletown BioFuels uses oil from soybeans to produce 1.8 million gallons of bio-diesel fuel for transportation and home heating.

“Further developing the biofuel and clean energy industries offers a real opportunity to create a new rural economy that has a foundation for economic growth,” Vilsack said.

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Food Safety and Inspection Service: Who is Elisabeth Hagen?

U.S. food safety regulation needs “major institutional reforms,” including improved data gathering and sharing similar to European systems, to better track E. coli, Salmonella and other illness-causing bacteria, a produce industry group says.

Among recommendations, the U.S. should create a Cabinet-level food safety agency and require regulators to compile an annual report summarizing surveillance data on foodborne illnesses and contamination, the Produce Safety Project said in a report released May 10.

While U.S. food safety regulation has improved in recent years, “the system is still haphazard, not very well integrated and in a lot of cases, it’s not very timely,” Jim O’Hara, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Food Safety Project, said in a May 11 phone interview. “We’re not doing it as well as we could.”

Three U.S. regulators, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, oversee various aspects of food safety, including tracking illness outbreaks and product recalls.

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Poultry safety standards tightened

Poultry processing plants will have to reduce the number of chicken and turkey carcasses that test positive for the toxic bacteria salmonella and campylobacter under new federal rules intended to prevent tens of thousands of food-borne illnesses each year.

The standards, which the Agriculture Department unveiled Monday, are projected to result in 39,000 fewer cases of campylobacter infection and 26,000 fewer cases of salmonella poisoning,  Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a telephone call with reporters.

The two pathogens are the largest reported causes of food-borne illness in the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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