Duck, Duck, Goose

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a big fan of foie gras. Part of my job requires that I generally eat what is put in front of me, and I’ll eat the stuff if I have to, but it’s never something that I’ll make an effort to search out.

Despite having an opinion on just about everything else, I actually have no opinion on the issues surrounding foie gras production. On the one hand, it seems weird and cruel, but on the other, those duckies sure do come running at dinnertime. I figure it can’t be any worse than the conditions that most of the western world’s meat is produced in, so any issue I have with fois gras would be more to do with farms that are more of a factory setting instead of a happy organic free-range kind of place.

Peta has recently issued a challenge to chefs to come up with a “faux gras” product, offering a $10,000 prize to the recipe that most closely resembles the real thing. Now sure, it’s Peta, and they can’t let it go without getting in a few jabs, calling foie gras the “delicacy of despair”, but the reaction to the contest has been just as childish.

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Gardens and Jealousy – Both Green

Most readers may not be familiar with the rapier pen of one A A Gill, a restaurant and television critic for the UK Times. Gill has recently had it in for the various UK chefs working to promote healthy, local, seasonal eating in Britain, and appears to take special exception to food journalist-turned-farmer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Hugh F-W runs a farm, shop and restaurant operation called River Cottage in the Dorset area, and currently has a series on the air in the UK called River Cottage Autumn, in which he delves into the seasonal delights of local UK food, from the garden harvest, to fish in season to the fine art of foraging.

Gill reviews an episode of River Cottage Autumn in a recent television column, ostensibly killing two birds with one stone. But he’s not especially nice – to Hugh F-W, or to the millions of people who happen to revel in the joy of a home-grown tomato.

Why should poor, fearful folk have to put up with a bucketful of organic new-age anxiety to go with the anxiety their imperfect lives manufacture all on their own, especially when it’s created by a home-made television presenter in a Beatrix Potter set? The idea that ideal people should strive to live like 18th-century crofters is intellectual silage. The enthusiasm may be charming, but this fetishising of food is part of the problem, not the solution. Shirley Conran once said that life was too short to stuff a mushroom. She was wrong. But you’d have to live an awfully long time to make making your own baked beans on toast worthwhile. Self-sufficiency is not an admirable goal, it’s small-minded, selfish, mean, mistrustful and ultimately fascist. It ends up with people waving shotguns at strangers over their garden gates. We live in a complex, mutually reliant society, and the answer to our problems is not each to his own cabbage patch.

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The Deadwood of Canadian Food Safety

Saturday’s National Post had an article about how the Canadian Food Inspection Agency plans to allow companies to police themselves when it comes to health and safety inspections.

The document, addressed to the president of the agency, details how the inspection of meat and meat products will downgrade agency inspectors to an “oversight role, allowing industry to implement food safety control programs and to manage key risks.”

Obviously this is a bad, bad thing. With diseases like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) still present in our food systems, government inspection is imperative. But it seems that the government doesn’t care, as funding for BSE testing is also slated to be cut.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is also ending funding to producers to test cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease) as part of a surveillance program, the document indicates, a move expected to save the agency about $24-million over the next three years.

Given the number of food borne illnesses that have shown up in the US factory-style food system in recent years, is that really something we want to be emulating here in Canada?

If you weren’t already concerned about where your food comes from, if you haven’t already made friends with a farmer, a baker and especially a butcher, now might be a good time to get that ball rolling. Because once this deregulation comes into effect and food companies don’t have to answer to a government inspector, it’s pretty safe to assume that an already screwed-up system is going to look like the wild wild west.

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Apparently bitching and Complaining WILL Get you Somewhere

It’s okay to eat chicken again. Or at least chicken from KFC. In Canada.

After years of protests and campaigns by animal rights groups PETA, KFC has bowed to pressure and has agreed to work only with suppliers that can ensure less crowding for the chickens it uses, as well as phasing out non-essential growth hormones and drugs. KFC will also source chicken only from suppliers who slaughter birds with gas, considered the most humane method of processing.

An added caveat will be that KFC will add vegan and vegetarian “unchicken” options to its menu, making the chain a consideration for a demographic of customers who might never have eaten there, and allowing those of us who love the magical 11 herbs and spices coating to get our fix without guilt.

Full story at the CBC website.

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Product of Canada

Did you know that Canada grows some fine pineapples? Or that we have many thriving chocolate plantations? If you’re a grocery label reader, it might be easy to assume that all of those prepared products labelled “product of Canada” were grown here. But the current law is a little bit slippery.

A recent Reuters piece about changes to labelling laws indicates:

Current rules state that a label can say “Made in Canada” or “Product of Canada” if 51 percent of the production costs are Canadian and the last substantial transformation of the product took place in Canada.

So cocoa beans shipped to Canada to be made into chocolate bars here go to the stores with a “product of Canada” label, even though they came from somewhere else.

The Calgary Herald explains the changes:

The new standards require that any label claiming a food product is a “Product of Canada” necessarily needs to have all or virtually all of its contents be Canadian. That includes ingredients, the processing and the labour used to make the product; an exception has been made for some foreign content to be included in a Canadian product and labelled as such if minor additives or spices are not available in Canada.

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Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.

I was ready to dislike Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto before I even picked it up.

While I mostly enjoyed his previous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, I felt that he did an awfully complicated song and dance in the steakhouse chapter to try and justify eating meat. Then I read a quote from In Defense of Food by another blogger which said “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”, which riled me up excessively.

My own grandmother was all about baking fresh bread, canning tomatoes and picking blueberries, but she was also of a generation that fully embraced the new convenience foods. Not to mention that until 1973, she had never lived in a house with indoor plumbing – with four sons to feed, and then a handful of grandkids, can you blame her for throwing store-bought cupcakes and frozen pizza at us? The woman had to boil her dishwater on a kerosene stove!

Turns out Pollan’s quote is actually about GREAT-Grandmothers, which makes a heck of a lot more sense. Well, unless you factor in the lack of indoor plumbing (those great grannies would likely have been all over the Twinkies too!).

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Playing Chicken – The Chicken Out Campaign

As a huge fan of British TV, and an openly honest stealer of television shows on the Internets, I was likely one of a small number of North Americans to view the series on Britain’s Channel 4 called Hugh’s Chicken Run in which food journalist and farmer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall tries to get his entire town of Axminster to switch from intensively-farmed (and cheap) chicken to slightly more spendy free-range chicken.

In a three-part series, HFW sets up a chicken farm in which he raises half a barn of chickens as they would be in an intensive farming operation (no poultry operation would give him permission to film on their premises, so he was forced to create his own), and the other half as free-range, with more space, access to the outdoors, toys and activities, etc. He also trolls the aisles of his local supermarket to try and convince customers to purchase the free-range birds.

This is the point where Greg and I looked at each other and went “Waitaminute!!! Whaaaa???”

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There’s No More Room on the Bandwagon

Okay, so I’m flipping through one of the happy housewife magazines that I subscribe to, eating lunch and not really paying attention to what I’m reading ($160 is too much to pay for a hot trend item that looks good on exactly nobody and will be out of style in 6 months) when I come across an ad that makes me choke on my soup.

The eeeeevilest of evil corporations has gone organic.

Sweet motherfucking hell.

Currently Kraft is only offering crackers, salad dressing and coffee in organic form, but you can bet your sweet patootie that there’s more to come.

Although organic products have recently gained an increase in recognition, organic practices are deeply rooted in traditional agricultural methods. Organic farming practices employ a variety of ecologically stable methods to help sustain a healthy environment. Composting, recycling and crop rotations are just some of the holistic practices farmers utilize to ensure a sustainable land, where crops are grown with natural fertilizers such as manure and without the use of synthetic pesticides. Animals raised on organic farms have access to pasture and open air runs to foster their health and natural behaviour, and are raised without the use of growth hormones.

Kraft organic products are created with carefully selected organically grown ingredients, and their organic qualities are maintained at all stages of production. Organic foods are minimally processed and contain no artificial preservatives or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

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Who Picked Your Produce

I’ve had this piece from Chow: The Grinder bookmarked for a couple of weeks now, and I’ve been meaning to discuss it.

In a development that’s surprised exactly no one, fruits and vegetables are rotting in fields across the United States after a crackdown on illegal immigration.

It interests me because of the issues surrounding illegal immigration, but also in part because of the point of view many people involved in the local food movement take toward farmer’s markets, assuming that if the farmer is at market then nothing is being harvest back at the farm.
We seem to be of the belief that the farmer we buy the apple from is the same person who picked the apple. The truth is that almost all farmers, both here in Canada and in the US, rely completely on the use of seasonal or immigrant workers (both legal and illegal) to harvest their crops.

In the US south and California, those workers are mostly illegal immigrants from Mexico. Here in Canada, the pickers are (mostly) Jamaican and arrive in the country with specific work permits. The apple farms in Ontario’s Norfolk county rely heavily on Jamaican pickers, and the tobacco kills from these former tobacco farms have been renovated and turned into housing for seasonal workers.

In both countries, we owe our cheap food prices to the fact that there are people willing to work for minimum wage (or less) to do the back-breaking work that no one else is interested in doing.

Something to remember the next time you bite into an apple.

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Will That be Paper, Cardboard, or Would You Like to Put Your Groceries in Your Pockets?

Imagine the world without plastic bags. More importantly, try to imagine buying groceries without the things. Now, many people are quite able and willing to do this (I use a backpack and/or bundle buggy along with canvas bags) but for most people, no bags = dilemma.

Loblaws, a Canadian grocery chain, announced today that one of their stores in Milton, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, would be the first bagless store in North America.

In its continued effort to become a more responsible GREEN retailer, and in response to Canadian consumer support for environmental initiatives, the new Milton Loblaw Superstore will be the first major grocery and general merchandise retail store in North America to eliminate traditional plastic grocery bags at the checkouts.

In April of this year, Loblaw Companies Limited made a commitment to reduce 1 billion plastic grocery bags from Canada’s landfills within one year. Reducing the amount of plastic grocery bags offered in stores, and offering more sustainable choices, will help achieve this goal. Currently, Ontarians use almost 80 plastic bags per second, close to 7 million plastic bags per day.

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Some “Local” Food Iniative That Really Make a Difference

In all of the talk about eating locally, we often forget that North America exports a huge amount of food to other countries. Some of it with strings attached.

CARE ­ a major international development NGO ­ has announced a major policy shift in their food aid strategy. The aid organization will no longer accept American federal financing for food aid. US food aid funding comes with strings attached ­ it requires that the funds be used to purchase American commodities which are then resold in developing countries to finance poverty reduction programmes. But the practice undermines agricultural production in these regions, perpetuating the need for food aid while supporting major American agribusiness firms. CARE now faces the formidable challenge of making up lost funding.

In order to support US farms and to have an end user for an awful lot of US-grown food that would otherwise go to waste (because despite the fact that in poorer US cities, many people don’t have access to a supermarket, the US actually grows more food than they can use), food aid to foreign countries is handed out not in the form of money for those countries to buy the food they want and need, but in the form of US-grown foodstuffs. The deal was always if you want aid, you must take it in the form of US commodities in order to qualify for the additional cash.

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The Case For Taste

So in the great “eat local” debate, what if it all came down to taste?

Ed Levine posts a really interesting piece today on Serious Eats debating the ethics of eating local over taste.

What if your local produce is actually crap? What if the stuff from waaaaaay across the continent tastes better than the stuff within that stupid 100-mile radius?

Almost every person espousing the 100-mile diet admits to at least one caveat (usually coffee), but local doesn’t always equal better in terms of flavour. What if we’re all missing out by rejecting the imported stuff?

Now, in most cases, local produce is still going to taste better because stuff loses flavour in transit – but what about the things that don’t?

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Sweet Treats on the Street

streetfoodlinejkTo say that the City’s Street Treats Fair was a resounding success would be a huge understatement. That line-up provoked a refrain of “Holy Shit!” from any number of people who entered Nathan Phillips Square from the north-east corner and were confronted with the throngs of people as they rounded the Peace Garden.

Crowds were lining up by noon and booths were selling out shortly thereafter. And sure, some of it was definitely the attraction of getting a meal from Jamie Kennedy or Rain for $5, but I think it’s safe to say that the people of Toronto really do want more than hot dogs and sausages. Another common refrain of the day was “Where did you get THAT??” as people walked past with melon soup or empanadas.

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Is Something Fishy?

This article is from last week, but I’ve had it bookmarked because I really wanted to talk about it. It needed some thinking first though, some pondering. I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

I stopped eating imported shrimp many years ago after reading one of the many books by Dr. Vandana Shiva in which she details how shrimp farms in India and Thailand are destroying the local ecosystems.

To operate effectively, shrimp farmers destroy mangrove swamps to create a flat, shallow area underwater – conditions in which shrimp thrive. This allows them to harvest the shrimp by trawling.

However, the mangrove swaps are home to many sea creatures whose habitats are destroyed and trawling is indiscriminate – anything in the way of the trawler – including thousands of sea turtles – gets scooped up.

The removal of the mangrove swamps also removes a layer of protection against tidal waves caused by tsunamis. It is widely believed that the Tsunami of 2004 would have done considerably less damage were it not for the shrimp farms that lined the coast of Thailand. Shrimp farms also cause seawater to leach into nearby groundwater, ruining other crops, such as rice.

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Growing Up Organic

What do a soy bean farmer, a nurse who runs a community garden, an activist working to stop toxic chemicals, an environmental architect and a food writer all have in common? We all shared a table at the Canadian Organic Growers (COG) conference this past Saturday.

With a theme of “Growing Up Organic”, the various presentations focussed on how organic food compared to conventionally grown food and how that might affect children’s health, as well as looking at the various organic food programmes in daycares and schools that were encouraging parents and teachers to choose and promote organics at home.

Speakers included Thomas Pawlick, author of The End of Food, Dr. Rick Smith from Environmental Defence Canada, Wayne Roberts of the Toronto Food Policy Council and Kim Crosby of Real Food For Real Kids.

The event also featured the first ever “Organic Food Hero” awards, with honourees in various categories. For her series “Organic Goes Mainstream”, Jill Eisen of CBC Radio received the Organic Media Hero award. Chef Michael Stadtlander was a awarded the “Organic Supporter” award for his work championing organic food and farming. The Organic Organization Hero for this year was Anne Slater of the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario. Bread and Roses Café in Hamilton, Ontario won the award for Best Restaurant Serving Organic Food, and The Canadian Organic Growers Volunteer award went to Anne Macey.

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Getting Taken For a Ride with Canada’s Food Guide

Yes, it’s the day that Canadians have been waiting for with bated breath – the release of Canada’s first new food guide in fifteen years. The media can’t stop singing the praises of the thing, but much of the media write their articles based on press releases. The truth is, the new Food Guide is not especially useful to anyone.

The guide has been redesigned to allow more personalization of choices; there are more ethnic foods to accommodate the cultural changes within our population, and it allows individuals to make specific choices with regards to which foods they will eat from each section.

But while the new Guide does offer serving sizes, it doesn’t differentiate it terms of calories or fat content. In the milk and milk “alternatives” section (to which I must emit a giant “HA!” – the only non-dairy “alternative” offered is soy milk), skim milk, 1% and 2% milk are all considered equal. And in the alternatives section, you can have pudding instead of a glass of milk. Not that milk should even be there to begin with (it’s really not necessary to good health and nutrition), but the Food Guide really wasn’t created with the health of Canadians as its primary focus anyway, and marketing boards have a much bigger say in the final draft than the real and genuine health concerns brought up by doctors.

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Eat the Rich

Before we even officially launch this site, I want to make something perfectly clear – while TasteTO was created in order to celebrate all of the wonderful food choices we have here in Toronto, we should never ever forget that there are a lot of people in our city who do not have those options. Sure, we’ll be running reviews of nice restaurants, and features on wonderful products and ingredients, but it would be remiss of us not to report on other food issues that affect Torontonians aside from whether this year’s truffle crop is as good as last year’s.

An article in yesterday’s Toronto Star advocates a meal subsidy for people on social assistance, calculating that a family of four receiving benefits has only $396 left after paying rent to cover all of their bills for the month, including groceries.

For instance, the average monthly rent for a three-bedroom apartment for a family of four in Toronto is $1,272. That family would receive $1,668.35 per month in social assistance benefits, child-related tax benefits and GST tax credits.

That would leave only $396.35 for food and other basics, far short of the $538.43 a month called for in the Nutritious Food Basket, which is based on the Canada Food Guide.

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