Archive for the ‘CSAs & Farmers' Markets’ Category

Great tomatoes: memories or not?

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Here's what they look like in the supermarket

When I was a kid in Wisconsin, we used to have "beefsteak tomatoes" several times a week. Then I went off to college and medical school, then residency and fellowships and, eventually, the Air Force. At some point I realized I wasn't eating tomatoes as often and, when I did, they just weren't the same.

We raised our own back in large pots on the back patio two years ago, bought a few at farmers' markets and some vine-ripened tomatoes at a supermarket. The taste, in all cases was much, much better than the standard grocery-store tomato, but I hadn't thought much about the reasons.

Than a friend, knowing about my blog, suggested I buy a book called Tomatoland, written by Barry Estabrook. The back cover advance comments included one by Ruth Reichel who was Editor in Chief for Gourmet Magazine for ten years (it went out of business in 2009) and has been restaurant critic for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. She felt the original Gourmet article, "The Price of Tomatoes," (which was expanded to become the book) was the one she was most proud to have published during her tenure.

There are two basic themes to Tomatoland: one is that the "industrial tomato," grown in Florida and accounting for a third of all the fresh tomatoes grown in this country (and a much greater percentage of those available in the supermarkets from October to June) is bred for almost everything except taste. His detailed exploration of the Florida tomato, whose attributes are tightly controlled by a state tomato committee, explained what I had known for some time. They add little to salads except for color.

But here's what they look like when they're picked

That especially excludes taste and nutritional benefits. The one thing the modern industrial tomato has over its 1960-era predecessors is sodium; it has considerably less vitamin content and less calcium, according to Estabrook. He has won two James Beard awards, one for his blog I went to that website and read a recent post which brought me back to the second theme of Tomatoland: the abhorent conditons endured by our migrant farm workers.

There are, according to that post, 400,000 of those low-paid laborers, 70% of whom are estimated to be undocumented. Florida had virtual slavery with crew bosses picking out and often holding workers in dismal settings (locked in a truck, for instance). That situation, has gradually improved in some aspects at least, in  large part due to the efforts of a worker coalition. But Estabrook's recent post said many of the migrant farm hands/pickers skipped working in Georgia this year after a new law mirroring Arizona's harsh legislation was put into place.

So Georgia was short 11,000 farm workers and the farmers were in danger of losing $300,000,000 worth of produce. The governor, who pushed for the new law a few months ago, is now offering those vacant farm jobs to unemployed probationers. The problem is the work is tough and often reuires experience, so the newly employed group is quitting in droves.

Read the book; it's an eye-opener.



Have an apple or maybe some cilantro?

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

Snow White, you may wish to reconsider!

I was reading the Wall Street Journal a few days ago and found an article with the jolting title "Pesticide Residue Taints Apples." The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) tests a variety of foods for pesticides and this year 98% of the apples they screened tested positive. Most of us eat apples; they are the second-most widely consumed fruit in this country (bananas are first).

I next found the USDA website and information on their testing program. It's been going on yearly since 1991, tests over 85 "commodities" including foods that may be fresh, canned or frozen, poultry, beef and catfish. They also test water (bottled, private and school wells, municipal water sources). The Pesticide Data Program (PDP) tests for more than 450 distinct pesticides of a variety of types (herbicides, fungicides, growth regulators, insecticides). The most recent PDP statement I could find (2009) said samples were obtained from 11 states representing ~50% of US population and all regions of the country and analyzed in thirteen central laboratories.

Have some cilantro, my dear

This year samples were washed under cold water for ten seconds to emulate typical consumer actions and yet over 90% of those from grapes, strawberries, cilantro, potatoes, oranges and spinach (plus apples of course) had pesticide residue. Cilantro was tested for the first time and the data was frightening; 44% of cilantro samples not only positive tested for pesticides, but also for unapproved pesticides.

According to a number of online sources, we have in recent years shipped to other countries huge amounts of pesticides that are not allowed to be used in the US. Then, of course, we may import foods from those countries. The good news, limited as it was, came from the USDA; only 3% of 2009 samples from produce, beef and rice contained either unapproved pesticides or excess amounts of pesticides.

The US Apple Association, burned by a "60 Minutes" program in 1989 which linked the pesticide Alar to health risks, has long complained about the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen & Clean Fifteen lists. Yet the EWG's 2011 Shopper's Guide (I'll paste in the URL below), says if consumers chose from the good list they can reduce their daily pesticide intake by more than 90%.

So if you can, choose from the "Clean Fifteen" and otherwise buy organic; if not shop wisely and that's especially true for those of you who are purchasing food for youngsters. An EPA senior staffer, Devon Payne-Sturgis,PhD, Assistant Director of the National Center for Environmental Research, authored a prize-winning 2009 publication showing 40% of US children have levels of one type of pesticide well above what is considered to be the safe limit.

I'm going to see if we can buy organic cilantro and in another hour or so I'll go pick up our first shipment of this year's CSA veggies.



E. coli and you

Saturday, June 4th, 2011

This is a "bug" you don't want

I've seen several articles in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in the past few days about diseases caused by an extremely toxic new strain of the common bowel bacteria, E. coli. More then 1,800 people in Europe have been infected with this food-bourne illness and some have died from an unusual kidney complication it can lead to.

The "bug" itself appears to be highly resistant to antibiotics and experts in the United States feel the wrong approach is being taken in Europe. One professor from Washington University is quoted as saying, "If you give antibiotics and the strain is (already) resistant, then you give that bacteria a competitive advantage..."

Here the recommended strategy is not to treat E coli infections with antibiotics at all. American doctors give IV fluids to help keep the kidneys functioning. They dialyze patients who develop acute kidney failure. On both side of the Atlantic physicians agree that people who develop bloody stools should be admitted to a hospital in an isolation room/ward. Otherwise a person who has an E. coli-caused diarrheal illness can easily infect others.

But dialysis can save your life

The rare, but deadly kidney disease that these food-bourne bacteria can cause is called hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS). The NIH PubMed website defines it as a disorder that usually occurs when an infection in the digestive system produces toxic substances that destroy red blood cells, causing kidney injury.

Hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS) often occurs after a severe gastrointestinal infection with E. coli bacteria (Escherichia coli O157:H7). However, the condition has also been linked to other gastrointestinal infections, including shigella and salmonella, as well as infections outside the GI system.

In America HUS is most often seen in children and is the commonest cause of acute kidney failure in them. Several large outbreaks in 1992 and 1993 were linked to undercooked hamburger meat contaminated with E. coli.

But in this case we're not talking about meat, but rather vegetables. In the past American outbreaks have been associated with contaminated tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers.

So should we be worried? Thus far there have been only four cases identified in the US. Those people had traveled to the northern part of Germany recently and that's been identified as the epicenter of this E. coli outbreak. Germany has had 1,733 cases in the most recent count I could find. Initially Spanish cucumbers were blamed, but now it appears clear that Germany is the source.

The FDA is closely monitoring lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes imported from Germany and Spain, but those countries account for <0.2% of our imported produce.

My family is about to start our 26-week season eating locally produced organic vegetables from Grant Family Farms, the CSA we joined last year. That improves my comfort zone enormously. I think the rest of you should consider farmers' markets, CSAs and other sources for vegetables that are grown relatively near your homes.

I've been saying that for a while; this outbreak just reinforces my thoughts on the subject.