Monday, September 23, 2013

Chicken processed in China: more questions than answers

As I mentioned earlier this month, the USDA has granted permission for chickens raised and slaughtered in the U.S. (and Canada, and Chile) to be exported to a handful of plants in China for processing. The downside of this arrangement for consumers is that the products using such chicken need not identify that it was processed in China.

I was pissed, and so is everyone who reads about the USDA ruling: China's track record for quality control, and more specifically food safety, is abysmal. That's why I was heartened to discover that members of Congress seem to be paying attention.

“Given the well-documented shortcomings of the Chinese food safety system, we shouldn’t allow unmarked meat into our markets that is processed in Chinese facilities that are not subject to food safety inspections,” [Sen. Sherrod] Brown [D-OH] stated in a press release accompanying his letter to [Secretary of Agriculture Tom] Vilsack.
Brown also has specific questions for Vilsack. A couple of most important (as far as I'm concerned) are:
Is it true that poultry processed in China would be labeled upon reaching our shores and possibly subject to re-inspection, but regulatory exemptions for processed poultry and meats allow labeling to be removed before these products are purchased by American consumers? If so, how might the labeling gap be remedied by USDA?

What additional regulatory or labeling steps might USDA take to ensure that American consumers are given all currently available information regarding supply chain safety and country of origin of their meat products (processed and unprocessed)?

Vilsack hasn't yet responded.

Brown wants USDA inspectors stationed at the Chinese processing plants, but I doubt that any inspection regimen can compensate for the reality that Chinese businesses don't take quality control or food safety as seriously as we do.

No, this nonsense about consumers not being allowed to know the origins of the ingredients in processed (or for that matter unprocessed) foods has got to stop. We consumers have the right to know who's handling our food and to have that information unambiguously spelled out on labels. Period.

Time to poke your Congresscritters and tell them to pepper Vilsack with their own questions, or join in asking Brown's.

Emmy for Colbert Report

In an Emmy broadcast that prompted The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman to ask in his live blog, "What did we all do to deserve an Emmys this bad?", there was at least one bright spot: The Colbert Report finally snagged the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Series.
"They say it's an honor just to be nominated, but it's also a lie. Winning is way better."
I prefer The Daily Show to The Colbert Report, but there's no denying that Stephen Colbert is one of the most phenomenally talented people on TV today. He has been doing his high-wire act for eight years now and he's just as astonishingly deft at it as he was on day 1.

Fittingly, The Colbert Report also won for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series. Like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report's writing, while sometimes sophomoric, is generally some of the smartest on TV. This, in spite of having to be carried out under brutal deadlines: the audience, after all, expects incisive commentary on news that happened no more than 24 hours prior to the show's airing. (Letterman and his ilk operate under the same time constraints but aren't expected to find something truly insightful to say: a quick zinger is enough. What they deliver is mild comedy; what Stewart and Colbert deliver is satire.)

I hope you all appreciate just how amazing Stewart's and Colbert's runs on their respective shows have been and continue to be. We are privileged to be watching legendary TV firsthand, and someday, when these shows are no longer on the scene, we will marvel that we took them for granted.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

The one-liner everyone wants to apply to this new TV show is, "It's the modern Barney Miller". Even the producers get into the act.

The Barney Miller comparisons are predictable but wrongheaded. Barney Miller was the quintessential ensemble show: although Hal Linden was the first-billed star, he served mostly as the eye of the storm for each episode, with other regular cast members and guest stars providing most of the comedic sparks. The show's trademark shooting style, emphasizing long, uninterrupted takes, gave it the atmosphere of a play: performers had room to interact and to react organically rather than through separate reaction shots. The pace and rhythm of the show, along with its severely constrained formula of wacky-victims-and-criminals-of-the-week, make it unique even today among American sitcoms.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine has a completely different structure at its heart. It revolves, at least for now, around Samberg's Det. Jake Peralta, whom some reviewers have dubbed a Hawkeye Pierce type of character for his irreverence coupled with great ability in his chosen profession. Authority, in the form of Andre Braugher's Capt. Ray Holt, inevitably clashes with Peralta. A crew of idiosyncratic fellow detectives and the need to solve crimes now and again keep the show percolating.

That percolating, that need to keep things moving, makes Brooklyn Nine-Nine very much a standard sitcom, albeit a good one, and not a real heir to Barney Miller. The denizens of the ol' 1-2 operated at a uniquely relaxed pace and the humor arose largely from the spectacle of quirky New Yorkers clashing with one another while simply trying to go about their business. The detectives functioned as referees as often as not, and the treat was to see what fresh bits of unexpected weirdness would be brought into the squad room each week for sorting out.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine hews more closely not just to standard sitcoms but to standard cop shows: detectives are supposed to be confronted by criminal mysteries and to solve them. Procedural work gives the detectives the chance to have their own encounters with Brooklyn's civilian population. It's doubtful, though, that these encounters will become the heart of the show as they did on Barney Miller. That's just as well: it takes formidable writing talent to keep that fresh week after week and the writing on the pilot was good, but not outstanding.

So enough with the comparisons. Brooklyn Nine-Nine isn't Barney Miller — but that's okay.

(And now, a word about Andre Braugher. At least one review I've seen expressed a bit of surprise that he works so well in a comedy. However, while it's true that Homicide: Life on the Street was often a grim crime drama, those who know it only by reputation don't realize that black humor was an integral part of the show. Braugher's Pembleton, like all the detectives, was capable of sardonic observations and deadpan putdowns. Braugher's Holt, in the pilot at least, comes off as Pembleton minus the brooding. Holt, in other words, isn't a stretch for Braugher — not yet, anyway.)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Pope Francis vs. U.S. bishops

AP religion writer Rachel Zoll penned an informative piece, "Pope's blunt remarks pose challenge for bishops", contrasting Francis' recent remarks criticizing the church's focus on abortion and other controversial issues with U.S. bishops' guarded responses.

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan thought the Pope's remarks were directed at everyone, not just Church officials.

"I don't know if it's just the church that seems obsessed with those issues. It seems to be culture and society," Dolan said on "CBS This Morning." "What I think he's saying is, 'Those are important issues and the church has got to keep talking about them, but we need to talk about them in a fresh new way.' If we keep kind of a negative, finger-wagging tone, it's counterproductive. "
Yeah, right, Cardinal Dolan, the ordinary citizen is all riled up about abortion and gay marriage. If one needed a sign that Catholic Church leadership in the U.S. is stuck in an echo chamber — one inhabited by fellow religious fundamentalists of all stripes — his remark was it.

Ordinary people are concerned about a lot of things these days: the economy, the possibility of further conflict in the Middle East, pollution of our air and water, whether twerking is a sign of the end of days. Abortion is one of those concerns, to be sure, but it doesn't obsess us the way it obsesses you and your coreligionists. And telling us that compassion for women who must decide whether to have an abortion is not just misplaced but positively evil, well, what that really tells us is, you guys don't give a shit about women.

Think that's too harsh? Here's what U.S. bishops have said and done in the last ten years.

During the 2004 presidential election, then Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis launched what was dubbed "wafer watch" when he said he would deny Communion to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, a Catholic who supported abortion rights. Other bishops followed suit or suggested that abortion-rights supporters refrain from the sacrament. (Benedict later appointed Burke head of the Vatican high court and elevated him to cardinal.)

By 2007, the bishops revised their moral guide for Catholic voters to put a special emphasis on the evil of abortion, so the issue wouldn't be lost amid other concerns such as poverty or education. The document, called "Faithful Citizenship," warned voters that supporting abortion rights could endanger their souls.

In the 2012 campaign season, it was much more common to hear bishops warning Catholics that voting for a particular candidate would amount to "formal cooperation in grave evil." Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., compared the policies of President Barack Obama to those of Hitler and Stalin. At Mass on the Sunday before the presidential election, Jenky instructed his priests to read a letter saying politicians who support abortion rights reject Jesus.

Endangering one's soul? Rejecting Jesus? Are you guys seriously telling your flock that this one issue, out of all those that face human beings, is the one that can make or break one's fate as a Catholic? For eternity?

You consistently and bullheadedly insist that the most difficult decision a woman is ever likely to face is not a decision at all. It doesn't involve a tradeoff between competing and weighty considerations. To you it's purely a matter of good and evil, and there is no possible good on one side of the scale.

This blinkered, black-and-white morality story you tell yourselves about abortion is intolerably, insufferably cruel. And so are you.

Your absolutist stance on abortion is only one sign of your intolerance. You consistently elevate dogma above compassion. You've decided that rather than adapting to the complexities of the modern world, you will mulishly and incessantly chastise and threaten it for not conforming to your standards. Your words and deeds show remarkably, lamentably little room in your hearts for understanding.

In a perfect world I would oppose prematurely terminating a pregnancy. But this isn't a perfect world. Even worse, the Church stands foursquare in the way of making the world better by firmly opposing contraception as well. For the love of Mike, guys, why? Do you not see the intolerable vise in which your positions on contraception and abortion place so many of your poorest, least powerful adherents? Do you not see the cruel choice you're inflicting on them?

I'm sorry, that was a dumb question. Of course you conservative bishops understand. No one has ever accused you of being stupid. You know what you're doing.

That's what's so appalling. You think punishment is the answer. Not compassion, not preventative help — punishment. In the criminal realm, no less. You know why you're getting pushback from the rest of us? Because you're supposed to keep your self-righteous mitts off our criminal justice system. You don't have a monopoly on morality or rectitude.

Pope Francis, it sounds as if you might be inclined to push the Church in a less confrontational direction. If so, I wish you luck. You have your work cut out for you with the deeply rule- and dogma-obsessed Church leadership in the U.S.

Emmy memorial snubs

It seems that this year, the Emmys have an unwelcome glut of dead stars who should be memorialized.

There's always a quickie montage of the deceased, of course, but the show singles out several stars each year for special memorials. This year, those specially honored will be James Gandolfini ("The Sopranos"), Jean Stapleton ("All in the Family"), Jonathan Winters ("Mork and Mindy", among other things), Gary David Goldberg (producer of "Family Ties"), and Cory Monteith ("Glee").

Among those special honorees, it's Monteith who's raising some people's hackles. It's understandable when you consider that not only had Monteith not won any Emmys, but that three other major stars were left out of the special-memorials segment: Charles Durning ("Evening Shade"), Larry Hagman ("I Dream of Jeannie", "Dallas"), and Jack Klugman ("The Defenders", "The Odd Couple", "Quincy, M.E."). Klugman's son Adam is incensed, pointing out that his father won three Emmys over the course of his half-century career.

One could argue that Durning was better known as a movie star, but not giving either Hagman or Klugman a special memorial segment does seem indefensible. Both men starred in multiple popular and long-lasting TV series, with Hagman especially creating characters that endured in viewers' hearts and minds. (I didn't like either of Hagman's two iconic series, whereas I loved "The Odd Couple", so I'm not a Hagman partisan by any means.) I didn't watch "Glee"; nevertheless, I don't know how you can defend snubbing Hagman or Klugman in favor of Monteith. However promising his career was, he hadn't accomplished a fraction of what Klugman or Hagman had.

Ah, well. I'd rather be thinking about this than the far right's plan to destroy the U.S. economy by shutting down the government.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

It's a bird ... it's a plane ... it's -- a frog?

Courtesy of Talking Points Memo, maybe my favorite rocket launch photo ever.

Could it have been Photoshopped? Of course. However, I choose to believe NASA's assertion that this really happened.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

China now allowed to process U.S. chickens

You may lose your appetite for processed chicken products when you realize the processing might have been performed in China.

Politico apparently broke the story on 30 August. Other outlets like the New York Times picked it up and provided more consumer-relevant context.

The Department of Agriculture on Friday approved four Chinese poultry processors to begin shipping a limited amount of meat to the United States ...

Initially, the companies will be allowed to export only cooked poultry products from birds raised in the United States and Canada.

However, the audit trail will be all but impossible for anyone to follow.
Under the new rules, the Chinese facilities will verify that cooked products exported to the United States came from American or Canadian birds. So no U.S.D.A. inspector will be present in the plants.

And because the poultry will be processed, it will not require country-of-origin labeling. Nor will consumers eating chicken noodle soup from a can or chicken nuggets in a fast-food restaurant know if the chicken came from Chinese processing plants.

Remember that bit about consumers not being able to know whether the chicken came from Chinese processing plants: it will be especially relevant a little later.

I have trouble trusting U.S.-based food processing plants. I have no confidence in the trustworthiness of Chinese food processing plants. China, socially and economically speaking, is still in its Gilded Age. The economic powers that be are unconstrained except when public outrage reaches critical levels. Corruption and fraud in the pursuit of profit are endemic. Only a week ago the Times published a different piece, "Fast and Flawed Inspections of Factories Abroad", which described how Chinese and other overseas manufacturers evade the inspections now required by some Western companies.

Two years ago, honey unexpectedly lacking pollen was found in many supermarkets under many brand names — "[m]ore than three-fourths of the honey sold in U.S. grocery stores", according to Food Safety News. (Removing the pollen from honey makes it impossible to determine the honey's origin.) The technique used to remove the pollen

is a spin-off of a technique refined by the Chinese, who have illegally dumped tons of their honey – some containing illegal antibiotics – on the U.S. market for years.
Richard Adee, whose 80,000 hives in multiple states produce 7 million pounds of honey each year, told Food Safety News that “honey has been valued by millions for centuries for its flavor and nutritional value and that is precisely what is completely removed by the ultra-filtration process.”

“There is only one reason to ultra-filter honey and there’s nothing good about it,” he says.

“It’s no secret to anyone in the business that the only reason all the pollen is filtered out is to hide where it initially came from and the fact is that in almost all cases, that is China,” Adee added.

There have been other food-safety issues with food (and pet food) originating in China. Quality control simply is not a priority for Chinese companies. If they can get away with dangerous shortcuts, they will.

So why did the USDA approve processing by those four Chinese plants? Politico quotes a plausible explanation given by Food and Water Watch. The group's executive director, Wenonah Hauter, issued a statement linking the USDA's action to U.S. beef exports.

“It’s common practice for government agencies to release information they hope to sneak past consumers on Friday afternoons before a holiday weekend,” she said.

“It has been no secret that China has wanted to export chicken to the U.S. in exchange for reopening its market for beef from the U.S. that has been closed since 2003 due to the diagnosis of a cow in Washington State with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease. Today’s audit report reveals yet again that USDA is willing to allow trade to trump food safety.”

Worse, the reassurances the USDA is giving us sound like absolute bullshit.
National Chicken Council Senior Vice President Bill Roenigk previously told POLITICO that USDA has repeatedly told the group it will ensure the Chinese-processed chicken will be safe.

“We have a concern about safety. But we’ve been assured and reassured by USDA that they will do 100 percent testing on poultry products from China,” he said.

Now we come back to the part about consumers not being able to know whether processed chicken came from Chinese processing plants. If we won't know, how will the USDA know? And the bigger question, because I suspect this will be the case — if the USDA will know which products contain chicken processed in China, why can't consumers know?

Since USDA has seen fit to throw U.S. consumers under the bus, I'll be giving up processed-chicken products of all kinds. For the sake of your health, I suggest you follow suit. The only way to get the USDA and food manufacturers to pay attention is to make this stupid decision a prohibitively costly one.