Whose Streets? Our Streets?

I sat glued to the TV for the past two days, watching the mess otherwise know as the G20 play out on the streets of my city. Stories of inhumane treatment of protesters are the most distressing, and the violence from all sides is chilling. And I’m trying to make sense of it all, not laying blame, but figuring out, as much as I can, why it all played out the way it did.

The first thing to note, and something which the majority of protesters did not seem to understand, is that the right to peaceful protest and the right to public assembly does not come with the right to break other laws. The original protest march on Saturday was legal because organizers got the appropriate permits to take over the streets. The prayer vigil and march on Sunday morning was legal because organizers got a permit to march from Church and Wellesley to King and Bay. Once the police cleared the crowd at King & Bay mid-afternoon (at which point the crowd had shifted from the original prayer march protesters to a mixed crowd), taking over the streets was no longer legal. The decision to head west, instead of dispersing northward interrupted the flow of traffic – thus causing all of the protesters marching to be in breach of the law, as they were impeding traffic flow. Just because you were legally allowed to walk down the middle of Queen Street on Saturday, doesn’t mean it’s legal for you to do it on Sunday, “peaceful protest” or not.

I have a concern with people claiming their human rights to free speech were violated with regards to this issue.


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Articles in all the major papers today, telling the world what many of us already knew – perfumes are toxic.

The testing showed that each fragrance contains, on average, 14 chemicals that are not listed on the product label. In total, nearly 40 undisclosed chemicals were found in the 17 products tested. The products contained a total of 91 chemicals, some identified on labels and some not. Of those, only 19 have ever been reviewed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, a review body of the cosmetics industry.

The kicker, of course, for people with “sensitivity” to perfume is that we can’t even get a legal diagnosis of “allergic” because perfume companies are not required to list all of those ingredients. Without a list, doctors can’t isolate the individual ingredients, and to ascertain an allergic reaction, each ingredient would have to be tested. Even then, knowing you’re allergic to, say, lilial, doesn’t really help if it’s out there in the chemical soup that people shroud themselves in.


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Stuff It

It’s almost like a secret shame but I’m ready to admit it to the world. I’m addicted to those “hoarding” TV shows.

First it was Hoarders on A&E, and now Hoarding: Buried Alive on TLC. Yes, I know TLC is often totally exploitative – both hoarding shows are, to be fair, but I can’t stop watching. It’s like rubbernecking while driving past a car crash.

I think my fascination with the shows is that they terrify me so much. Especially the ones where people who were formerly neat and tidy suffer some huge emotional loss and then are inclined to surround themselves with stuff – and not just good stuff, but piles of old newspapers and soft drink cups. The people who were already happy to live in clutter – you expect that they’ll live in their own sloth – but when the neatfreaks have their brains snap, that’s some scary shit.


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Stupid Is as Stupid Does

The foodie intarwebs are abuzz about a recent post by cookbook author Michael Ruhlman claiming that Americans are being taught that they’re too stupid to cook. While I get Ruhlman’s point (lots of people are making a profit on processed food because people are scared to try and cook food themselves), there’s a condescension to his words, a pompousness to his tone, that does a disservice to his message.

If you know how to cook, then yes, cooking is easy. Ruhlman uses a basic roast chicken as an example; sprinkle it with salt, bang it in the oven for an hour, ta da! And those of us who know how to cook understand this. But we also understand many things that a non-cook might not know; things that Ruhlman doesn’t mention in his post. Like washing and patting the chicken dry first, and taking care to clean all surfaces to avoid salmonella. Or to take out that bag of gizzards if there is one. Or whether to cook it on a rack in the pan or directly in the pan itself. Or whether to truss or not (it’s not mentioned in the “look how easy this is” post, and a small chicken doesn’t need to be trussed, but the accompanying photo shows a trussed roast chicken, which might cause confusion), or how much time to add for cooking if your bird is bigger than the size he mentions, or how to check for doneness when the bird comes out of the oven. A commenter even points out that, hey, not everyone, especially people who don’t cook regularly, might have an appropriate pan to cook a chicken in.

Ruhlman knows all these tricks of course, but he misses the point by not sharing the information, and the information is really what it’s all about. Seriously – compare his directions to these from Chef Claire Tansey. It’s the same basic recipe, but Tansey actually addresses all the little questions that can make a difference in both the final product and the cook’s confidence.


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In Bloggers We Trust – Why the US Disclosure Laws Treat Bloggers Like Children

Are bloggers untrustworthy?

Obviously, we all blog for different reasons and we all approach blogging in a different way, but a recent statement of intent to enforce disclosure laws in the United States by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) means that bloggers in the US are required to disclose when they mention or review any item or service that was provided free of charge or that they are being paid to write.

What does that mean exactly? It’s nebulous. The laws are being enforced mostly to clamp down on websites like ReviewMe or PayPerPost where bloggers can register and advertisers can select blogs to write advertorials about their product or site. Usually there is no free product offered for these services – during the brief period when I was registered with ReviewMe.com a few years ago, I was asked to “review” a miracle berry juice product (acai or goji or something like that) based solely on their website. I pretty much tore it apart and was inundated with cranky emails from distributors selling this stuff to desperately ill people under the premise that it cured cancer,  so I certainly didn’t get paid for a favourable review, although the advertiser did pay me, and ReviewMe does require disclosure of the association.

Also suspect in this situation are occurrences of restaurants paying or bribing reviewers or bloggers to favourably cover their business, such as the case that recently occurred on Yelp when a California restaurant offered a discount to anyone who came in and showed the manager that they had written a review of the place on the local Yelp website.


A bonus of this legislation is that it may put pressure on viral marketers (sorry… “social media experts”) who target bloggers and invite them to events with freebies and swag, provide misleading comparative product information, and then pressure bloggers into writing about the product.

However, the laws don’t pertain to news or mainstream media. From Slate:

Because of a pesky thing called the First Amendment, the guidelines don’t apply to news organizations, which receive thousands of free books, CDs, and DVDs each day from media companies hoping for reviews. But if the guidelines don’t apply to established media like the New York Review of Books, which also happens to publish reviews on the Web, why should they apply to Joe Blow’s blog? Regulating bloggers via the FTC while exempting establishment reporters looks like a back-door means of licensing journalists and policing speech.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, magazines and papers don’t disclose free product or free dinners – it’s assumed that they’re comped (note that the exception to this would be restaurant reviews that are always done anonymously and therefore are paid for by the reviewer personally or the media organization). Having worked on the other end of things when I ran a record label, we gave away dozens of free CDs to magazines and websites each month without ever expecting disclosure. The same occurred when I worked at an accessories distributor – we gave free product to magazines to be used in fashion shoots – we seldom asked for the items back unless they were expensive.

So are blogs news media? At TasteTO, we often say that while we use blog software, we don’t consider the site to be a blog. We run our website with probably more professionalism than a lot of dead tree publications – who determines if we’re media or hobbyists? I run this blog as a professional site as well, although the content is more general – am I a “writer” or a “blogger”? Is it the terminology that will make a difference when it comes to the legality of writing about a free jar of jam?

Incidentally, as Eat Me Daily points out, the laws are very much designed to deal with sites and organizations openly soliciting bloggers, and not individual hobbyist bloggers who write about a free cookie from their local bakery.

Even if you fail to make the appropriate disclosures, it’s important to recognize that your risk of fines is quite low. For one thing, the FTC doesn’t actually have the authority to impose fines for this sort of regulation. It must seek court orders to enforce the regulations, and the courts can impose fines if they choose, but that would take a long string of very preventable and unfortunate events. The worst-case scenario in which you actually get fined would probably require you to refuse to comply with a cease and desist letter from the FTC, then later disobey a court order to remove the offending posts. In other words, fines will likely be quite easy to avoid, even if you don’t start making the called-for disclosures. And just in case you still need reassurance, officials from the FTC have now said repeatedly that the FTC will not ever be going after bloggers.

So it’s actually a moot issue. But one that can be the beginning of another conversation. Is it time for bloggers, individually and as a demographic, to start taking reviews more seriously, and approaching their writing more professionally? Should we be looking at maybe dividing bloggers into professionals and hobbyists in some way in order to instill some trust from government organizations? Or are individual bloggers okay with being treated like children and forced to disclose that free cookie in fear of vague legislation (from another country if you’re not in the US) that will likely never be enforced?

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Ditzy Food Yapping

I suppose I’m as guilty as anyone else.

No, I take that back, I’m not.

I’ve loved everything to do with food and cooking since I was a young thing (see user pic), but I’d like to think that I’ve never bent anyone’s ear about it, that I haven’t bored anyone to death with minute details of a dish I’ve cooked, or eaten. Or that, to the outsider, all I seem interested in is food.

That’s hard, as someone who is a food writer and has worked in restaurants and done catering. It’s my job to be obsessed with food.

But there’s a line where it becomes obnoxious and ruins the fun for everyone else.

Maybe it’s some kind of early-adopter elitism, the idea that those of us who have been involved in something for a long time know more, do more, deserve more than the newbies. Or maybe I’m just too much of a cool-ass curmudgeon to enjoy someone else’s enthusiasm over discovering something new.

But the keeners (aka “foodies” [said with a derisive sneer], or “foodiots” according to The New York Observer) are ruining it for the rest of us.


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Probiotics Revisited

It’s been a couple of years since I posted my rant about probiotic claims on yogurt containers. Recently, Dannon/Danone settled out of court rather than face a lawsuit that would make the research they based their product on public. In Europe, the Food and Safety Association has rejected health claims on packaging outright.

One science food writer believes that companies will rally and come up with better research and better strains of probiotics, becuase they actually do a lot of good. Marion Nestle would like to see the US take on a similar approach that the EU has and ban health claims on products completely – her point: foods are not drugs and we shouldn’t be treating them as such.

One other thing that I don’t see addressed by anyone…

Dannon is working hard to get an approved health claim from the European Standards Agency which annoyingly wants to see some science behind health claims before approving them. Dannon has now added a tomato extract to its yogurts with the idea that this substance, which appears to help deal with diarrhea, will strengthen its bid for a health claim.

Tomatoes are an allergy trigger for a lot of people. Just as adding fish oil to bread so it can be enriched with Omega 3 could trigger allergic reactions in people sensitive to fish, might we begin to see reactions to products with tomato extract added? This all seems a desperate attempt to confuse and mislead consumers into believing that they can buy a tub of yogurt instead of visiting a doctor or taking real medicine.

And of course, as even Dannon’s research made clear, the probiotics don’t work as well as the company is claiming they do. Add to that all the sugar and flavourings most people need to make yogurt palatable, and you might as well be eating candy. Plain, unadulterated yogurt contains natural probiotics that can (maybe) be beneficial to your health. Don’t be fooled by the hype and the pretty package.

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Starbuck’s Is Not Your Private Office

I’m pegging this as another issue in my ongoing rant about how the lowest common denominator of society actually make the rules.

When cafes and coffee shops started offering free Wifi service, we all though it was terribly novel. People flocked to the chain shops to work and hang out, some spending the entire day there, writing, emailing, nursing a coffee. Note the singular tense there. A coffee. Maybe two.

Think about all the times you’ve been at a busy restaurant waiting for a table, watching that group in the corner linger on and on… well past when their bill has been delivered and paid for, well paid multiple refills of water… Now imagine the same scenario at a coffee shop. There’s some guy with a laptop, taking up a four-seat table, with that 3-hour-old cup of coffee in front of him. And there are no seats, you’re a group of 3 and you’ve all got food. Who deserves the table more?


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Bag Lady

As of today, the City of Toronto requires all retailers to charge 5 cents for a plastic bag. Paper bags that do not have plastic handles or grommets are exempt.

Many grocery stores have charged for bags for years so most people are in the habit of bringing their own bags, backpacks or carts – or picking up a cardboard box at the checkout. I have no issue with this practice; for grocery shopping I am a hard-core bag bringer – my pair of tired old cotton twill bags from the Hudson’s Bay Company date back to 1991. I will undoubtedly shed a tear when they give up the ghost, mostly because the handles are the perfect length.


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It’s no secret that I am adamantly against processed food products that make health claims. And my post about added pro-biotics in yogurt still gets numerous hits each day, which makes me think that this is an issue that confuses the average consumer.

Health and nutrition are hot topics, and large food processors have figured out that anything with an aura of health around it sells better. This phenomenon is actually called the “health halo” or “health aura”, and stems from the fact that people will eat (and by extension, purchase) more of a product that they believe to be healthful. This leads to additional health problems as consumers end up taking in greater numbers of calories, fat, sugar and salt, defeating any impression of healthfulness the food might have had.

Currently, labelling laws in Canada prohibit a great number of these products from being fortified with unnecessary vitamins, and also prohibit those same companies from making health claims. Manufacturers, hoping to target a health-oriented society by fortifying products that are essentially junk food, are pushing Health Canada to speed up the decision-making process that would see these fortified products, emblazoned with health claims, on supermarket shelves.


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Thin May Be In, But Fat’s Where It’s At

In recent days, two different news stories have hit the papers. The first and more popular article indicates that people who are obese to morbidly obese could lose 3 – 10 years off their life because of their weight. The second article, which I’ve only seen appear in the National Post, indicates that the measurement for body mass index (BMI) is not the only indicator of risk (in reality, BMI is complete and utter bullshit and was never designed to be used as the indicator of health or fitness that it currently is), that fat and obese people can be completely healthy with no health risks whatsoever, and that being “overweight” is probably healthier than being normal to underweight, especially if you become ill.

At points, the two articles directly contradict each other.

However, it’s important to note that the “fatties are gonna die” article comes from a UK medical journal called The Lancet. The British government is currently in the midst of a very high-profile fight against obesity, one that looks increasingly paranoid and that could potentially jeopardize the health of its citizens. Especially frightening is the witchhunt against childhood obesity which targets normal weight children as young as toddlers.


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The Lights Are On, But No One’s Home

Without being too preachy about it, I consider myself to be an environmentalist.

Since the early 90s in fact, the last time it was cool to go green.

I’ve been using the same cloth bags to carry my groceries home since that time. I don’t use a clothes dryer. I don’t drive a car. I don’t travel especially much in general. I use things until they break down and then I have them repaired if possible. I put a sweater on rather than turn on the heat. I eat a mostly vegetarian diet (at home, at least) and I buy local produce whenever possible. My environmental footprint, while not as small as it could/should be, it about 1/4 of the average North American’s,even when you take into consideration that I will not give up my incandescent light bulbs.

Yeah, I know – compact fluorescent bulbs are supposed to be the Western world’s easy, no-fuss solution to cutting back on their energy usage. Environmentalists talk about them like they’re the second coming of Jeebus and governments are drafting legislation that would require their use, with incandescents being phased out.

Now, studies are showing that the compact fluorescent bulb could be emitting UV radiation. Sitting too close to one could give people a sunburn. There’s talk of issues with exposure to electromagnetic fields.


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I walked along Queen Street yesterday, searching the sidewalks for hydro plates. They’re plentiful, but inconspicuous, one of those things you never even notice until you go looking for them, but then they’re everywhere. A 10-inch round metal disk, set into the outer third of the sidewalk about 4-5 feet from every hydro pole so workers can access wiring for each street light, they’re unavoidable as you walk down the street.

And Toronto has somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 of them, all of which they plan to check for what they’re calling “stray voltage” after a 2nd dog was electrocuted yesterday from stepping on one with wet feet.

As a dog owner, this scares the beejeezus out of me. Particularly in the fact that they call it “stray” voltage because it’s not always there to find. After the first dog was killed in November, all the poles and plates in the area were supposedly checked, but the spot where the dog was killed yesterday was across the street from where the first incident took place. That metal plate was checked and was found to be fine with no problems. So how can we trust that any of these plates are safe?


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Flights of Fancy

It’s almost over.

It’s ten to four on Labour Day afternoon, and we’re sitting here waiting for the air show to finish. Make that the fucking air show. It’s an annual tradition – they fly a bunch of loud planes past the CNE grounds on Labour Day weekend, and we sit at home comforting the dogs and listening to car alarms go off as the F-16 passes overhead.

I don’t know a single person in the neighbourhood who actually likes or watches the air show. Yes, if I’m out on the street and catch some of it in the sky, it’s visually impressive, I won’t argue that fact. But for four days (the three days of performances and a practice day on Friday) our neighbourhood is inundated with noise and the stench of jet fuel.

Yet if we complain, if we dare to point out how disturbing it is, we’re big party-poopers. It’s a tradition, it’s for the kids, yadda, yadda, yadda. Then hold it in the ‘burbs. Not over the Toronto neighbourhood with the highest percentage of recent immigrants; people who left their countries to escape the terror of jet fighters flying overhead and noises that sound like bombs going off in the distance.


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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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If It’s Not a Food, and It’s Not a Drug, Then What Is It?

Ladies and gentlemen, please take a moment to fashion yourself a lovely piece of millinery out of some kitchen foil. You’ll need it to ward off the gamma rays, because the guberment is out to get us all!!

The issue of Bill C-51 puts me in the unfortunate position of finding myself agreeing with the Conservative Federal government. But more than I despise conservatives, I detest people who get rich selling green powder and snake oil to unwitting chumps searching for a way to cure what ails them.

In most cases, big pharma has let them down, and yes, yes, yes, no doubt big pharma is in no small part responsible for pushing the government to pass this bill and force “natural health products” to the same standards used for pharmaceuticals. Undoubtedly, the bill will force some small companies out of business – but a lot of those companies will be shysters selling magic powder and a basket of hope to people who have already gone through enough.


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I’ll See Your Organic Free-Range Chicken and Raise You a Tin of Lamb Mince

While the name Delia Smith is familiar to me, I’ll have to admit that I’m not especially familiar with her cookbooks. Given the recent fuss about her newest cookbook How To Cheat at Cooking, I sort of assumed she was one of those slack-assed Rachel Ray types with the canned goods and bagged greens, teaching fans how to spread salmonella in three easy steps.

But it turns out that Smith is more well-known for being the UK’s answer to Martha Stewart. She spent years teaching Britons how to cook real food, teaching them basic cookery techniques and classical dishes. How to Cheat at Cooking is apparently a rewrite of her first book published in 1971, but from there, her work was all about cooking with real, fresh ingredients.

Any new book sells better with a wave of press, and there is some speculation that Smith’s recent public comments about Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaign against battery chickens might simply be desperate publicity spin. Smith claims that her recipes are designed to feed the poor, especially the chyllldrunnn (who will think of them?), but even poor kids are likely to turn up their noses at some of the stuff in her new book.


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Ladies, Please

When we started TasteTO last year, I subscribed to a bunch of Canadian women’s magazines because I thought they might be useful references for stories. They haven’t been especially, as they’re not Toronto-specific enough, and they also run to seriously mainstream tastes and trends – generally enough that I find something about every issue that annoys and frustrates me.

The most recent issue of Canadian Living is billed on the cover as their “Go Green Issue” with a whole lot of lip-service paid to the recent trend of eco-activism without any real commitment required on the part of the reader/consumer *or* the magazine. There’s your typical spread of eco-friendly shopping bags, tips on eco-friendly laundering, and generally a whole lot of articles on how we can all be good little consumers yet still save the earth. (ie. Don’t stop buying *stuff* just buy environmentally-friendly stuff!) I saw no mention of important actions like hey – get out of your fucking car! Or – stop taking the annual family trip to Disneyworld! Just a lot of suggestions of how to renovate your house with beach stone tiles or stuff that *looks* like it’s from nature (ie, plastic photo frame that looks like logs).


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The Lies on Your Yogurt Container

There has never been any debate that yogurt is a healthy food. Yogurt adds calcium and protein to the diet; can positively affect other health issues such as cholesterol, immunity and colon health; and is easier to digest than milk. Plain yogurt contains live bacteria that can regulate digestive issues and restore balance to a system thrown off by things like yeast infections or anti-biotics.

These good bacteria are known as pro-biotics, and occur naturally in plain yogurt made with live bacteria. However, once you get into sweetened or flavoured yogurt of any kind, the sugars kill off the live bacteria and the nutritional benefit is thought to be negligible.

Because food companies are always working to keep and increase their market share, and because our society seems to work on the theory that if a little of something can be helpful then a lot of something must be really, really great, processed foods have been popping up on the shelves of the dairy case touting the inclusion of pro and pre biotic bacteria.


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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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