ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Twitter Food List to Chew On

Kim O'Donnell has gathered a go-to list of people to follow on Twitter from the sustainable food world. Many are my Tweeps. She writes:

For those in the social media know, Twitter has unveiled a beta version of its “Lists” functionality, which allows you to categorize Twitter accounts however you wish.  The list is an interesting way of distilling feeds by theme or topic, making it easier to keep tabs on news, particularly if it’s breaking or timely.

...I’ve just scratched the surface, but already I’ve got 25 (or maybe 27) folks and groups worth considering a follow or at least a quick Twit-peek. Check it out, and feel free to weigh in and share some of your favorites.

via See the full post at

How Transparency Works

By Samuel Fromartz

I just read three pieces that show the power of transparency in the food system.

First was the op-ed in the Times I missed yesterday on the conditions of sows in the pork industry (should we call it the pig industry?). Nicolette Hahn Niman points out that Smithfield Farm recently decided to stop using gestation cages which "virtually immobilize pigs during their pregnancies in metal stalls so narrow they are unable to turn around."

Getting rid of gestation crates (already on their way out in the European Union) is welcome and long overdue, but more action is needed to end inhumane conditions at America’s hog farms.

Of the 60 million pigs in the United States, over 95 percent are continuously confined in metal buildings, including the almost five million sows in crates. In such setups, feed is automatically delivered to animals who are forced to urinate and defecate where they eat and sleep. Their waste festers in large pits a few feet below their hooves. Intense ammonia and hydrogen sulfide fumes from these pits fill pigs’ lungs and sensitive nostrils. No straw is provided to the animals because that would gum up the works (as it would if you tossed straw into your toilet).

You get the picture. I saw another email on how this sort of knowledge is affecting producers - in this case, in the dairy industry. The source was Dairy Line, a trade publisher for milk producers.

They are concerned that "well-funded activists" are raising questions about rBST, the synthetic growth hormone that pumps up milk production (and reduces the productive lifespan of cows). They blame the activists, but the fact is, consumers are voting for rBST-free milk with their wallets the more they hear about the issue.

As organic milk - which cannot be produced with synthetic hormones and antibiotics - has raised awareness on this issue, other non-organic milk companies have followed suit and are banning rBST (which is not approved for use in Europe).

The email goes onto state that "similar scenarios have developed in other arenas in recent months ... issues that affect poultry and pork production and 'We’re concerned dairy is coming under the same kind of attack,'" the email said.

As consumers learn more, production methods come under greater scrutiny and traditional agriculture feels the heat. It's happening across the food system.

Finally, transparency can effect decisions at the farm. Albert Straus, of California's Straus Family Creamery (an organic milk producer) decided to test his feed for GM contamination. According to Time magazine, he "was alarmed to find that nearly 6% of the organic corn feed he received from suppliers was "contaminated" by genetically modified (GM) organisms.

So Straus and five other natural food producers, including industry leader Whole Foods, announced last week that they would seek a new certification for their products, "non-GMO verified," in the hopes that it will become a voluntary industry standard for GM-free goods. A non-profit group called the Non-GMO Project runs the program, and the testing is conducted by an outside lab called Genetic ID. In a few weeks, Straus expects to become the first food manufacturer in the country to carry the label in addition to his "organic" one.

The bottom line: Transparency changes food production decisions. It is now having a measurable impact on what we eat.


Mackey-Pollan Smackdown Turns Love Fest

By Carmel Wroth

AMUSE-BOUCHE: Local, of course

The pre-event reception to the Michael Pollan-John Mackey discussion drew quite a crowd.

Hungry (and penniless) graduate students rubbed shoulders with well-heeled foodies, including superstar chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, nutritionist and best-selling author Marion Nestle, and Bill Niman, co-founder of Niman Ranch meats.

Of course you’re wondering what there was to eat.

Guests munched on goat cheese fritata, artisanal salami, and crostini, decked with green olive tapenade, warm hedgehog mushroom spread with fresh grated romano, and duck liver pate.

All locally sourced, naturally!

Conversation buzzed—everyone was excited to see the two food luminaries talk. Or maybe they were just pleased they had scored tickets (people were soliciting them on Craig’s List before the event.)

Whole Foods employees had come from far and wide to see their boss.

“John Mackey is cool,” said Elizabeth Wade, a team leader at the Petaluma, California, store.

David Evans, Marin Sun Farms’ owner, who sells his grass-fed meat locally (and not in Whole Foods), said he hoped the Pollan-Mackey conversation would shed light on how “small farms can access a bigger market without sacrificing integrity.”

Yes, indeed, the question of the night.

FIRST COURSE: History Lesson

To start things off, John Mackey - co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods - gave the crowd of nearly 2000 people a 45-minute food history lesson, complete with colorful Powerpoint slides.

He walked us through the entire history of food procurement and production. Six discreet stages of food history from hunting and gathering to Whole Foods Market!

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Mackey believes that a new era of food is emerging to replace industrial agriculture--what he calls ecological agriculture--and naturally it’s bigger than Whole Foods.

He seems to think his company is the heart of the movement (it may well be), and he clearly articulated a vision for a sustainable alternative to industrial food.

He also broke some news (as he seems to do every time he appears with Pollan). Whole Foods has established a $30 million venture capital fund to make equity investments in artisanal food companies. This presumably comes on top of a $10 million fund set up for farmers last year.

Secondly, the company is launching a “Whole Trade Guarantee” fo the company’s commitment to source certified ethically traded products.

How can you be cynical about this man?

SECOND COURSE: Smack-down Letdown

As the dialogue got under way, there was a rustling of expectation in the audience. The provocative debate was about to begin, right?

After all, these were the two men who disagreed so strongly about whether the organic food business was lapsing into industrialism that they conducted a heated, months-long online argument. (See our previous post for links on the debate)

In person, though, they were almost painfully gentle with one another. They sparred, a little, I guess, but it was more like couple's counseling than a duel.

For starters, there were admissions of mutual gratitude and admiration. Mackey had learned from Pollan. Pollan appreciated Mackey.

The denouement came when Pollan asked Mackey if he blamed the company’s recent stock devaluation on his less than flattering chapter on the Whole Foods. It went like this:

“Well you probably cost us about $2 billion,” said the natural foods tycoon. “Easy come, easy go.”

(Audience laughs)

“Seriously???” (Culinary poet laureate grimaces painfully).

Mackey described how a flurry of unflattering press followed the book, including frequent comparisons to Wal-Mart.

Pollan looked contrite.

Mackey melted: “Aw, I’m just pulling your chain a little bit, Michael!”

What are righteous eco-consumers to make of this not-so-spirited interchange? If you want to see a debate, as one audience member suggested, invite people who are really on opposing sides of an issue.

Pollan and Mackey originally did have their differences, but when Pollan came up with his eloquent critique, Mackey moved rapidly to turn Whole Foods' sustainable battleship in line with Pollan’s vision—or to emphasize the ways it already was already doing so (sourcing more local foods in stores and moving forward with supporting domestic grass-fed meat, for example).

Pollan, for his part, politely closed ranks with perhaps the most influential man in organic and natural food circles, which is, you'll recall, the alternative to 98 percent of the food supply.

Mackey had his own criticism of Pollan, saying “big organic” is not as big and bad as the author claimed.

“You exaggerated the extent of industrialization of organic,” he said, even adding his most contentious comment, “you’ve done some damage!”

Pollan said he “didn’t intend to demonize” big organic. Organic Coca-Cola would be fine by him. (Say what?)

Which leads us back to a fundamental question raised by the evening's discussion, can organic scale up without selling out? Is there a way to produce and distribute enough organic food to reach the vast majority of the population, or will organic food remain in its gilded 2 percent niche?

DESSERT: A challenge

With all these weighty issues on our minds, Mackey asked one last question.

“What is your contribution going to be? What are you going to do to support ecological agriculture?”

Other than shopping at Whole Foods and the farmers' market? We're still pondering that one.

(The Webcast of the event is archived here)